MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

October 20, 2012

2 1/2 years, no poultry case ruling

More than 30 months have passed since the parties involved in the state’s poultry industry pollution lawsuit rested their cases.

U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell, who presided over the 52-day trial that spanned nearly five months, has yet to render an opinion. The parties rested their cases and submitted it to the court Feb. 18, 2010.

Former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson filed the lawsuit in 2005, alleging the poultry industry was responsible for deteriorating water quality of the Illinois River, its tributaries and Tenkiller Lake.

Industry practices at the time included the application of poultry litter as fertilizer on land within the watershed. Edmondson alleged the practice contributed to phosphorus overloading of the scenic streams and sought to stop it.

High nutrient levels, according to experts who testified on behalf of the state, contributed to algae growth, decreased levels of dissolved oxygen, and deteriorating water quality. Steps have been taken since the lawsuit was filed to limit the amount of poultry waste applied as fertilizer within the Illinois River watershed, and water quality seems to be improving.

Howard Overton, Frizzell’s deputy clerk, said the only information he could provide with regard to the judge’s delayed ruling is the case is “still in the bosom of the court.” No explanation was offered regarding why so much time has passed without a decision.

Denise Deason-Toyne, president of Save the Illinois River, said the Tahlequah-based citizens’ coalition and its members are hopeful the extended delay means Frizzell’s deliberations will be thorough.

“STIR is hopeful that it means Judge Frizzell is being very deliberate and thorough in his review of the very large record and number of exhibits before he issues his opinion,” Deason-Toyne said. “No doubt he will be very cautious in supporting his decision.”

It appears likely “that regardless of which way he rules, an appeal may follow,” Deason-Toyne said.

Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson Foods, one of the poultry companies named as a defendant in the state’s lawsuit, said a year ago he had no expectation of a fast ruling. This year, he said the lawsuit and the lack of a ruling has changed nothing.

“Poultry farmers don’t need a court ruling to ensure they’re being environmentally responsible,” Mickelson said. “The use of poultry litter as a fertilizer on farm land was regulated by Oklahoma and Arkansas before this lawsuit was filed and it continues to be today.”

Mickelson said poultry growers “are abiding by the laws developed by state legislators and regulated by state agencies.” Any litter being applied within the Illinois River watershed, Mickelson said, “is done so under a permit issued by the state of Arkansas or state of Oklahoma.”

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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