PR firm to become part of chicken fight
By P.J. LASSEK World Staff Writer
The Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority has hired a public relations firm to help it persuade lawmakers to strengthen poultry legislation ensuring water quality protection for the city's drinking water.
"Even though we have a legal settlement, the integrators and the chicken growers are lobbying heavily at the Legislature to get away from our settlement," Utility Authority member Patty Eaton said.
The authority has entered into an one-year contract for $21,750 with Lee Gould, owner of Alexander and Lee, a Tulsa-based firm.
Authority Chairman Lou Reynolds said Tulsa has a story to tell -- "a story that comes from the need to protect our water and Oklahoma's future. We've hired Gould to help us tell that story."
The primary focus of the public relations effort, Reynolds said, is to support national and state legislative efforts by enacting new laws governing the application of chicken wastes in Oklahoma watersheds and by raising public awareness on the issue.
"We want to prevent even further harm from being done by the poultry industry," he said.
Gould said the state is engaged in a great environmental struggle with Arkansas.
Oklahoma's scenic lands and waterways must remain a priority with citizens and lawmakers alike," he said.
In 2001, Tulsa officials sued six poultry companies and the city of Decatur, Ark., over phosphorus pollution in creeks and streams that feed into Lakes Eucha and Spavinaw, one of Tulsa's main drinking water sources.
Tulsa's lawsuit against Peterson Farms, Cargill, Tyson Foods, Cobb-Vantress, Simmons Foods, Georges and Decatur alleged that they were responsible for 170 million pounds of phosphorus- and nitrogen-rich chicken litter that goes into the watershed, harming the lakes. For decades, farmers have used the chicken litter on pastures as free fertilizer.
Phosphorus in the waterways causes alga blooms to grow, depleting oxygen levels, choking aquatic life and creating taste and odor problems that have been costly for Tulsa to treat.
In 2003, the suit was settled. The settlement fell short on placing liability on the poultry companies and the city of Decatur for polluting the lakes, but it created measures to restrict further contamination.
"I think the public thinks we have solved the problem," Eaton said. "We have this settlement in place, and we have said we facially won the lawsuit. The public believes that has taken care of the problem, and it hasn't, and that is the unfortunate situation."
Authority member Jim Cameron said to benefit Tyson and other large Arkansas poultry companies, the Poultry Federation and the Farm Bureau have opposed Tulsa's efforts to pass stronger clean-water legislation.
Cameron said while the settlement agreement is permanent as far as the establishment of safeguards for the management of waste disposal in the watershed and the adoption of a phosphorus index, it is at the federal court's discretion whether to extend the court's jurisdiction over the settlement beyond 2007. Cameron said once the court relinquishes jurisdiction, there is no enforcement tool for the city if it believes the poultry industry is out of compliance with the settlement, other than filing another lawsuit.
"Tulsa's position is that Oklahoma statutes should be consistent with the permanent settlement agreement entered into by Tyson and other poultry defen dants," Cameron said.
He said the poultry companies do not want to see the clean-water safeguards in the settlement agreement extended to other watersheds in Oklahoma.
"The poultry industry's continuous fight to dispose of chicken waste on land in endangered watersheds simply makes no sense," he said.
"The millions of dollars Tyson and other large Arkansas poultry companies spend each year on attorney fees and public-relations strategies opposing clean water initiatives should be spent transporting phosphorus-rich chicken litter out of endangered watersheds," Cameron said.
Reynolds said there are solutions to the poultry pollution problem, "but it will take corporate responsibility on the part of the big companies."
P.J. Lassek 581-8382