Poultry farmer Gene Pharr scoffs at the thought of chicken droppings as hazardous waste. Poultry waste spread along the Ozark Mountains has turned the region into a lush green, he says. And chickens have made this corner of Arkansas truly prosperous.
LINCOLN, Ark. Poultry farmer Gene Pharr scoffs at the thought of chicken droppings as hazardous waste.
Poultry waste spread along the Ozark Mountains has turned the region into a lush green, he says. And chickens have made this corner of Arkansas truly prosperous.
That's why Pharr fears a lawsuit targeting the industry that could put chicken waste on par with industrial solvents, pesticide remnants and old car batteries.
"We could see the loss of this industry to this country," said Pharr, whose 125,000 chickens are but a fraction of the region's $2 billion industry.
But Oklahoma's attorney general, Drew Edmondson, sees it another way. He says phosphorous from poultry litter runoff fuels algae growth that reduces the clarity of rivers and streams, depletes oxygen and can kill certain populations of fish.
He remembers that, as a college student in Tahlequah, Okla., he could stand chest-high in the Illinois River and still see his toes. "I've seen it change," Edmondson said. "It's nice to have green land. It's not so nice to have green rivers."
Last month, he sued 14 Arkansas poultry companies -- including three run by Tyson Foods Inc., the world's largest meat producer -- accusing them of tainting Oklahoma waters with the waste from millions of chickens and turkeys.
Oklahoma's lawsuit, filed June 13, seeks unspecified money to clean up the Illinois and is using the same South Carolina law firm that handled lawsuits against tobacco companies.
The farmers have banded together as a group called "Poultry Partners" in an effort to have a voice they say they didn't have in previous litigation.
"The poultry industry is not the tobacco industry and poultry litter is not a hazardous waste," said Janet Wilkerson of Peterson Farms, a spokeswoman for the companies being sued.
Poultry companies say Edmondson is ignoring phosphorus added to the water by a growing population. Even so, while the region is rapidly expanding, it still has well fewer than 1 million people.
According to the lawsuit, Arkansas has 2,363 chicken houses in the Illinois River watershed while Oklahoma has 508. The chickens add phosphorus waste equivalent to 10.7 million people per year, Edmondson says.
The Arkansas growers question why Oklahoma sued rather than seek more regulatory standards. They say money would be better spent developing alternative ways to use poultry litter, such as in composting or in generating electricity.
The poultry industry has been good for the economy of northwestern Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. Tyson is a Fortune 100 company that had $26.4 billion in revenue last year, and thousands of people work in the industry -- from hatcheries to slaughterhouses to processing plants.
Attempts to have animal waste declared a noxious substance have been used in court before. In Texas, the city of Waco, alarmed by phosphorus levels in the North Bosque River, is using the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act to fight dairies.
The Oklahoma lawsuit is generating hard feelings. Arkansas state Rep. Mike Kenney said his town may cut services provided to West Siloam Springs, Okla., if it must spend more to improve water quality.
"It seems the Oklahoma attorney general is set on dismantling an industry," Kenney said. "Over time, because of litigation, the cost of doing business will be driven up and I think you will see the industry move to Central America or Asia and we will regulate ourselves out of business."
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, Okla., farm and manages the Poultry Partners group, said her family's future is tied to Peterson Farms, one of the smaller companies named in the lawsuit.
"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 supply."
Source: Associated Press