BY ROBERT J. SMITH Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
A Washington County poultry farmer sued the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, but he acknowledged Monday that his beef over chickens is really with Oklahoma.
Gene Pharr, who owns farms south and southwest of Lincoln, filed his lawsuit Friday in Pulaski County Circuit Court. Pharr wants the Arkansas court to acknowledge that farmers who abide by nutrient management plans approved by the state commission shouldn’t have to worry about phosphorus limits set by Oklahoma.
Waste from poultry houses, often called "litter," contributes phosphorus to the soil when it’s used as a fertilizer. "We’re just asking a judge to say the state of Arkansas has the right to set the requirements for poultry farmers who use litter," said Pharr, the director of the Washington County Conservation District. "The current laws are reasonable and protect the environment well."
In his lawsuit, Pharr asks a judge to declare that farmers who have and follow approved nutrient management plans, as well as federal laws, should be allowed to use poultry litter on their property or sell it to other farmers within the Illinois River watershed. "Gene wants to determine what he can do, and he believes he’s following the law," said William Waddell, Pharr’s attorney in Little Rock. "He wants a court to tell him that."
Pharr, who raises chickens on one farm for Springdalebased George’s Inc. and keeps cattle on both farms, said the lawsuit is a response to actions taken by Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson.
In June, Edmondson filed a lawsuit that named nine poultry companies as defendants and blamed them for polluting Oklahoma’s designated scenic rivers.
Those companies include Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale; Aviagen Inc. of Huntsville, Ala.; Cargill Inc. of Minneapolis; Cobb-Vantress Inc. of Siloam Springs; George’s Inc. of Springdale; Peterson Farms Inc. of Decatur; Simmons Foods Inc. of Siloam Springs; and Willow Brook Foods of Springfield, Mo.
All of those companies have chicken or turkey processing plants in Northwest Arkansas or eastern Oklahoma. The ninth company — Cal-Maine Foods Inc. of Jackson, Miss. — is an egg producer.
Edmondson negotiated with poultry companies but those talks ended in August.
Oklahoma in 2002 approved a phosphorus limit for its six scenic rivers, saying phosphorus must be less than 0.037 milligrams per liter in the Illinois River, Flint Creek, Lee Creek, Little Lee Creek, Baron Fork Creek and the Upper Mountain Fork River.
Besides poultry waste, other sources of phosphorus include sewer plant discharges and commercial fertilizers.
Ed Swaim, an attorney with the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, said the state agency hasn’t decided how it will respond to Pharr’s lawsuit. "We haven’t formed any opinions, but he feels he needs to test the laws and get some pronouncement on it," Swaim said.
Pharr said he closely follows a nutrient management plan that regulates the use of poultry litter on his farms. He has worked with other farmers and Waddell on his lawsuit. "Farmers haven’t been allowed to be in the negotiations with Drew Edmondson, but we’re being blamed," Pharr said. "We’ve been left out and, as farmers, we’re trying to stand up for our rights. We feel the poultry farmers have been singled out as the problem with the phosphorus in the rivers, and that’s certainly not so."