Poultry Companies to Meet With Oklahoma Attorney General
By Dan Craft
The NW Arkansas Morning News
FAYETTEVILLE -- A new round of negotiation between poultry companies and the Oklahoma attorney general about water quality will begin June 7.
Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson claims that chicken litter from Northwest Arkansas is polluting Oklahoma waterways by increasing phosphorus levels in the water, and has threatened to sue Northwest Arkansas poultry companies in federal court.
Negotiating may resolve the dispute without the need for litigation, said Charlie Price, a spokesman for Edmondson's office.
Calls to poultry companies were referred to Janet Wilkerson of Peterson Farms, who has acted as a spokeswoman for the companies. Wilkerson did not return calls left Friday at her office.
Morrill Harriman, a representative of the Arkansas Poultry Federation, also did not return messages left Friday on his office and cell phones.
The issue of water quality was raised anew earlier this week when three mobile monitoring stations were found in Washington County.
A total of eight monitors were placed in Northwest Arkansas by a contractor working for Edmondson's office to gather information pertaining to the possible lawsuit, Price said.
"We're still hopeful that we won't have to file any litigation, but the monitoring is part of our preparation for a possible lawsuit," Price said. "We're looking into all sources of pollution."
The monitors upset Washington County Judge Jerry Hunton.
"They came over here and did this without asking anyone," Hunton said. "They're trying to hype up this deal, trying to convince people that phosphorus is some sort of dangerous chemical. It's just not."
In addition to his job as county judge, Hunton also grows chickens at his farm near Cane Hill in the Illinois River watershed.
Edmondson's office filed a notice of intent March 9 to sue six poultry companies that operate in Northwest Arkansas. Edmondson has said he will seek monetary damages for past pollution and a change in the way poultry litter is handled in the future.
A group of poultry companies -- including Tyson Foods, Peterson Farms, Simmons Foods, and George's Inc. -- then sent notices to more than 130 companies in eastern Oklahoma that utilize commercial fertilizer that they might also be liable in a lawsuit.
Edmondson's office does not plan litigation against anyone except the poultry companies, a spokesman said last month.
Negotiation between the parties last December ended without a resolution.
The upcoming round of talks, scheduled June 7-9 in Tulsa, Okla., will be mediated by Judge Thomas Brett, a retired federal district judge from northern Oklahoma.
The announcement was posted Friday afternoon on Edmondson's Web site.
The litter created in chicken houses is commonly used as fertilizer on pastures and fields. Poultry farms in Northwest Arkansas, southeast Missouri and northeast Oklahoma produce about 60,000 tons of litter annually, according to an industry estimate.
Much of Northwest Arkansas drains into the Illinois River watershed. The river then flows into Oklahoma.
This is not the first time Northwest Arkansas poultry companies have faced questions about phosphorus levels across state lines. The companies agreed to a $7.5 million out-of-court settlement with the city of Tulsa in 2001 over allegations that phosphorus levels were fouling lakes in Oklahoma that serve as Tulsa's supply of drinking water.
The Tulsa settlement led to the establishment of a pact between Arkansas and Oklahoma to set water-quality standards between the two states. Poultry companies protested Oklahoma's phosphorus standard of 0.37 milligrams per liter, calling it unreachable.
Chicken farmers, claiming they had been left out of negotiations between Tulsa and the poultry companies, formed Poultry Partners Inc., in the hope of gaining a voice in future talks.
It was not immediately clear Friday whether Poultry Partners would be a party to the June negotiation.
The negotiating will be done in closed-door sessions, and all parties have signed confidentiality agreements, Price said