A temporary injunction issued recently by a Delaware County judge put a halt to what appears to have been a pattern of wrongdoing at the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.
The agency issued successive provisional temporary water permits for a concentrated poultry feeding operation in Delaware County. In doing so it deprived neighboring property owners their due process rights by delaying — thus denying a formal hearing after they protested the contract growers' application for a temporary water permit.
An assessment of the conduct of the Arkansas industrial chicken farmers as described in the order issued in February by Delaware County District Judge Barry V. Denney makes it clear there was an assumption water would be available despite those protests. OWRB officials violated the agency's rules to ensure the poultry industry's contract growers could access water to which they had no legal right.
Chau Tran and Donna Nguyen are two of many contract growers who supply chickens for the poultry industry, a large part of which is located in northwestern Arkansas. In December 2017 they applied for a temporary permit to withdraw 50 acre-feet of groundwater to service a concentrated poultry feeding operation capable of churning out 300,000 birds about every 10 weeks.
Neighbors protested the permit after learning about the application, expressing concerns about depletion of the underlying aquifer and contamination of groundwater and surface water. OWRB never provided residents an opportunity to present those concerns at a formal hearing, but the agency's executive director granted a provisional temporary permit to Tran and Nguyen.
A provisional temporary permit, according to state law and OWRB regulations, may be issued for no longer than 90 days and cannot be renewed or reissued. When Tran and Nguyen was granted a provisional permit, they had not completed construction of the poultry barns and knew, or should have known, they had no legal right to the groundwater in amounts that would be needed for the concentrated poultry feeding operation.
The contract growers proceeded to build the barns, stock it with chicks, and supply the poultry industry with broilers regardless of that fact. OWRB's executive director issued five successive provisional permits in violation of state law and agency rules to the growers while longtime citizens of Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation watched polluted runoff from the poultry houses cross their property and their wells dry up.
Any reasonable person would ask why Tran and Nguyen would sink so much money into an operation that may not be viable if OWRB denied the permit being protested by neighboring landowners. They must have had some idea — maybe some assurance? — that Oklahoma "is open for business" and renewing provisional permits is just business as usual at OWRB.
It's been some time since anybody in Oklahoma acting in an official capacity has taken a stand against the poultry industry. Former Attorney General Drew Edmondson stood up to the industry on our behalf, but those who followed him allowed those stalwart efforts to languish for the past decade in U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell's chambers in Tulsa without a ruling.
The industry appeared to acquiesce to our concerns after Edmondson finished presenting his evidence in February 2010 to the federal judge in the U.S. District Court of Northern Oklahoma. But the industry crept back in — quietly at first — and during the past five years got a stranglehold on state government and once again is ruining the quality of life for the rest of us.
Judge Denney's ruling should serve as a wake up call for Oklahoma lawmakers and state regulators, who must acknowledge who it is they serve. If they don't have to time to read the judge's findings of fact and conclusions of law, here's a hint: It's not the poultry industry.