U.S. Water News Online
EDITOR'S NOTE: Oklahoma sued Arkansas' poultry industry
last month, alleging its waste is tainting the state's waters. The
Associated Press looks at the ramifications of the poultry industry
on both sides of the state line.
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. -- When Drew Edmondson went to college
here, the nearby Illinois River flowed so clear he could stand
chest-deep and still see his toes. The water was such a temptation,
"I majored in river," he says four decades later.
With the river now murky and green, the Oklahoma attorney
general's nostalgia quickly turns to blame aimed at the $2 billion
poultry industry straddling the Arkansas-Oklahoma line.
"I've seen it change," Edmondson said. "It's watching the slow
destruction of a probably irretrievable asset."
Last month, he sued 14 Arkansas poultry companies in federal court
-- including three run by Tyson Foods Inc., the world's largest meat
producer -- for allegedly tainting Oklahoma waters with waste from
millions of chickens and turkeys.
Applied to farmland as fertilizer, the poultry litter has created
a verdant landscape in the Illinois River watershed. But the land
can't hold all the nutrients, and the runoff believed to be fueling
explosive algae growth downstream in Oklahoma amounts to hazardous
waste, the state's lawsuit alleges.
"It's nice to have green land," Edmondson said. "It's not so nice
to have green rivers."
The water is still safe for swimming and fishing, but phosphorous
fuels algae growth that reduces clarity, depletes oxygen and can kill
certain populations of fish.
At the point where the Illinois River crosses from Arkansas into
Oklahoma, phosphorus levels rose from the mid-1990s until 2003, when
there was a 12 percent drop in the five-year average, according to
water monitoring for the Arkansas-Oklahoma Arkansas River Compact
The drop came a year after Oklahoma imposed its first numerical
standard for scenic river quality -- 0.037 milligrams of phosphorus
per liter of water. Arkansas environmental authorities say efforts by
Arkansas cities to reduce phosphorous from wastewater treatment
plants appeared to be paying off.
But J.D. Strong, chief of staff for Oklahoma's secretary of
environment, said the dip is largely attributable to an abnormal dry
spell that meant less runoff from farms.
"We know that 80 to 90 percent of the phosphorous that travels
down that river occurs in a handful of rainfall events," Strong said.
National Weather Service records show that, this year, average
rainfall amounts in the region are 6 to 8 inches below normal.
The conflict over water that Arkansas and Oklahoma share is a long
and bitter one.
Oklahoma took Arkansas to court in the 1980s over wastewater
releases from Fayetteville, Ark. The case ended in 1992 when the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled the releases could continue but Oklahoma could
require Arkansas to meet its water quality standards.
In 2003, the states declared a truce with a pact that gave
northwest Arkansas cities as long as 10 years to meet Oklahoma's new
The agreement, however, didn't address phosphorous from poultry
The average annual phosphorus load climbed 38 percent between the
1980s and the period covering 1998-2002, a time of expansion in the
poultry industry and explosive growth in cities in the western
If the executives of the poultry companies traveled to Ed Fite's
farm outside of Tahlequah; if they crossed under the highway in the
tunnel his grandfather had built to accommodate a 1962 Cadillac with
a canoe on top; if they stood amid the wildflowers on the
yet-beautiful river, he'd try and convince them it needs their help,
not another fight.
"I don't know anyone who would want to come and destroy this
river," said Fite, who spent his first decade as head of the Oklahoma
Scenic Rivers Commission doing battle with Arkansas.
Water quality at normal flow likely will improve as the cities
build new wastewater treatment plants. But Fite said the problems
with runoff during hard rains are worsening as trees are cleared to
build roads, houses and shopping malls in booming communities in
northwest Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma.
On his own farm, Fite stopped fertilizing the hay field flanking
the river years ago and created a strip of natural vegetation to slow
The commission is spending $250,000 on lease agreements to create
similar riparian zones along about 16 miles of river, something Fite
believes could make a big difference if done throughout the
"The river is still in pretty good shape," he said. "It's still a
natural resource that warrants the protection."
The Illinois River attracts a half million visitors a year and
contributes $9 million to $12 million to the state's economy, Fite
said. But growing chickens is part of Oklahoma's economy, too.
Of the 2,871 poultry houses in the watershed, 508 are in Oklahoma.
Edmondson says he wants the companies, not the farmers, to pay for
the cleanup. But Bev Saunders, who raises broilers with her husband
on their Colcord farm and manages an advocacy group called Poultry
Partners, said her family's future is tied to Peterson Farms, the
small company they serve.
"If the companies don't survive, we don't survive," she said. "If
we don't survive, it could have a drastic impact on America's food
A recent poll shows most Oklahomans support the lawsuit, which
gained steam with the 2003 settlement between the city of Tulsa and
six poultry companies and the city of Decatur, Ark., over tainted
The $7.5 million agreement required Decatur to improve its
wastewater treatment system. It also set limits on the application of
poultry waste to land in the watershed.
Before the deal was struck, a federal court deemed phosphorous a
hazardous substance and found poultry companies liable for nuisances
created by their contract growers.
Edmondson remains hopeful the state and companies can avoid a jury
trial. He has held off issuing summonses to see if ongoing talks --
with meetings scheduled again in August -- produce a settlement.
The court filing would be needed to enforce even a negotiated
settlement, he said.
But after years of negotiations, he believes he's given the
poultry companies enough chances to avoid costly litigation. In 2001,
at their first meeting, he said he told them he wouldn't seek damages
or cleanup costs if they agreed to truck excess waste out of the
"They had an opportunity to do the right thing," he said. "And
they refused to do it."
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