Oklahoma Judge Rules Against Poultry Producers

After more than a decade of delay, Oklahoma Northern District Federal Judge Gregory Frizzell ruled against a group of poultry producers in a lawsuit over pollution of the Illinois River.

The lawsuit was brought in 2005 by Oklahoma’s then-Attorney General Drew Edmondson, reportedly due to pressure from wealthy environmental extremists. The defendant companies included Tyson, Cargill, Cobb-Vantress, Aviagen, Cal-Maine Foods, George’s, Peterson Farms, Simmons Foods, Willow Brook Foods, and a number of their subsidiaries. The lawsuit claimed that the poultry companies improperly disposed of chicken litter (manure), which allegedly led to excessive phosphorus pollution in the Illinois River Watershed. Excess nutrients in water can create eutrophication, which is a chain reaction resulting in increased algae growth and low-oxygen waters that can harm fish populations.

The Illinois River Watershed (IRW) encompasses the tributaries of the Illinois River and the river itself, which originates in Arkansas and flows into Oklahoma’s Tenkiller Lake, and then on into the Arkansas River. The Oklahoma section of the Illinois River is designated as a scenic river and is therefore granted special protection by state law.

The case was heard by Judge Frizzell between September 2009 and February 2010, and the long-overdue ruling was issued on January 18, 2023. Frizzell ordered that the parties cooperate to find remedies to the situation and that he must approve any cooperative plan that’s decided upon. The parties were originally given a deadline of March 17, 2023, to reach an agreement, but after both sides requested an extension, the date was moved to June 9.

Standard Practices for Chicken Litter

It is standard practice around the world for nutrient-dense chicken litter to be spread on cropland to increase yields, as well as the nutritional value of the crop. Chicken litter is widely accepted to be one of the best and most cost-effective natural fertilizers, with high contents of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, as well as calcium, magnesium, sulfur, and a variety of micronutrients.

The use of additives, such as fertilizers and pesticides, is closely monitored and regulated. Poultry operations are required to report the activities of their operations to the Oklahoma Department of Food and Forestry (ODAFF). Nutrient management plans and limits on litter application are part of every poultry operation.

Additionally, most operations have adopted practices such as routine water testing, altering the timing of litter application, and even hauling excess litter out of the watershed area to be utilized elsewhere. Many producers also work cooperatively with organizations such as the Oklahoma Conservation Commission (OCC) to implement further measures, such as streambank restoration and filter strips (a strip of undisturbed vegetation used to prevent erosion).

Improving The Watershed

ODAFF Director of the Agricultural Environmental Management Services division, Jeremy Seiger, manages the program that regulates livestock and poultry feeding operations, and poultry litter applications in Oklahoma. Seiger stated:

“ODAFF data shows that in 2009 in Oklahoma approximately 31,660 tons of poultry litter were applied to cropland and pastures in the Illinois River Watershed (IRW). Over time that number has decreased substantially and in 2014 approximately 8,000 tons of poultry litter were applied in the IRW. Improving water quality in the watershed is a team effort by all, and on both sides of the state line. Decreasing the amount of poultry litter that is applied is only one of the many changes that have occurred to help improve our water resources.”

The efforts to protect overall water quality in the IRW certainly have not been limited to the agriculture industry. According to Shanon Philips, OCC Water Quality, there have been numerous measures taken by a variety of stakeholders, such as improvements in wastewater treatment, reductions in recreation impacts, collection and recycling of irrigation water, and partnerships between landowners and local, state, federal, and tribal entities.

“…As a result, many partners on both sides of the state line agree that we’re seeing significant decreases in phosphorus in the river. Although we still have more phosphorus in the river than a scenic river should have, according to Arkansas-Oklahoma Arkansas River Compact Commission reports, we’ve cut concentrations at the state line by at least half since the 1980s.”

Regardless of such numerous and varied measures, in 2020 a water monitoring station in the Illinois River near Tahlequah, Oklahoma reported phosphorus concentration levels exceeding the limit by 92%. In 2008, the Arkansas-Oklahoma Arkansas River Compact Commission determined the phosphorus limit to be 0.037 milligrams per liter, after a 2003 agreement to achieve a 75% reduction in overall phosphorus output.

The True Motive?

The poultry industry is not the only source of excess phosphorus as a pollutant. Phosphorus is a base ingredient in manufactured fertilizers and is also present in all livestock waste, municipal sewage, and other industrial wastewater. Nevertheless, the poultry industry was singled out and targeted by this lawsuit.

Certain aspects of the case seem to indicate that the environmental status was not the true motivation behind Frizzell’s decision. The great delay in issuing a ruling calls this into question. If rampant pollution from any source was the issue, wouldn’t an environmentally-minded judge work to issue a prompt decision to help limit said pollution as much as possible?

Some insiders believe that Frizzell’s ruling was timed to have the heaviest, precedent-setting impact possible under the new sweeping overreach of WOTUS (Waters of the United States) laws being adopted by the current administration.

Impacts from the Ruling

It might be easy to dismiss the ruling as only affecting “big ag,” but Tyson alone contracts with 3,600 poultry producers, many of which are family owned and operated. According to the USDA, family farms make up 98% of farms in the United States, and account for 88% of production.

The implications of the Oklahoma ruling for the entirety of agriculture—and for all consumers—are truly alarming. When years-long, multifaceted cooperative environmental improvement efforts can be discounted and swept aside by an anti-agriculture agenda-based ruling, it affects every American’s ability to provide their families with safe and affordable food.

Read more about WOTUS (Waters of the United States) here.

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