By ROD WALTON World Staff Writer
Some worry the Scenic Rivers Commission vote could hurt the state's lawsuit against the industry.
TAHLEQUAH -- A divided Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission voted Thursday to accept a $1.1 million gift from the poultry industry despite some reservations that the money could adversely affect the state's lawsuit against the companies.
Opposition came from Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson's office and commissioners who are concerned that the gift comes with strings attached. Commissioners voted 7-4 for a resolution to accept the gift.
Commissioner Gerald Hilsher argued that Edmondson's lawsuit against the poultry industry could not be ignored. He cautioned that the companies' gifts could be used as exhibits or even somehow intimate that the Scenic Rivers Commission is antagonistic to the state's lawsuit.
The litigation is the elephant in the bedroom, said Hilsher, the
commission's vice chairman.
"We don't do things in a vacuum," he added. "The litigation is out there. You can't divorce yourselves from that."
The attorney general's lawsuit alleges that poultry farms' practice of spreading excess chicken litter on the ground as fertilizer has polluted eastern Oklahoma watersheds. Phosphorus from the litter depletes oxygen from the water and can kill aquatic life.
The Illinois River and its tributaries are considered state scenic rivers and attract tens of thousands of visitors annually for
swimming, fishing and floating.
In August, commission Chairman Rick Stubblefield wrote to various entities in the watershed, asking for money to fight stream-bank erosion and other problems.
One of the letter's few responses came from Peterson Farms Inc., Tyson Foods Inc., Simmons Foods Inc., Georges Inc. Cargill Turkey Production LLC and Willow Banks Foods Inc., all of which are lawsuit defendants.
The poultry companies agreed to make the $1.1 million donation. The gift includes $500,000 over four years for erosion-control efforts; $100,000 to build restroom facilities along the river; and another $500,000 over four years for promoting and implementing nonspecified environmental practices within the Illinois River.
All of the money and efforts would be handled by the Scenic Rivers Commission, the state's watchdog agency for the Illinois and other nearby streams.
A previous letter from Janet Wilkerson of Peterson Farms seemed to
indicate that the companies' donation hinged on a resolution calling erosion one of the greatest threats to the Illinois River. The company later contended that the letter was misread and did not demand such a resolution.
The only thing the poultry industry wants, Peterson Farms attorney Scott McDaniel said Thursday, is acknowledgement of the companies' generosity. He said Edmondson's office and the media have attacked the industry for not doing more in the past.
"They are doing something substantial," McDaniel said of the gift. "They want to be recognized for it."
Foes of the resolution said they had no problem with the $1.1 million gift if it came with no strings. The problem, they complained, is additional language that commends the industry for a plan to spend $5.05 million to reduce poultry litter in the watershed.
Poultry companies say they plan to help their contract farmers get rid of the litter. The goal is to remove up to 90 million pounds in the first year and up to 180 million pounds by the third year.
That is a worthy goal, some opponents conceded, but not something that should be part of a resolution thanking the industry for the $1.1 million gift for restrooms, promotion and erosion control.
"What I'm hearing is they're not doing this for the quality of the environment or out of the goodness of their hearts," Commissioner Rod Foster said.
McDaniel bristled at the criticism. He accused Hilsher of trying to intimidate other commissioners with fears of litigation.
He wondered aloud whether the removal of chicken litter was a true goal of the lawsuit.
"What I'm hearing is that removing litter is contrary to the state's position in the lawsuit," he said. "I don't get that."
After the meeting, McDaniel said he doubted that the poultry
industry's gift would change many adversaries' minds.
"What was done tonight was about water quality," he said. "The lawsuit is about money."
Some commissioners, however, questioned why the gift could not be accepted with just a simple thank you to the industry. Jennifer Owen, D.I. Wilkinson and Foster joined Hilsher in voting against the resolution.
A planned Tuesday vote was canceled after Edmondson's office said the commission had not given proper notice for the meeting.
Assistant Attorney General Ellen Phillips wouldn't say whether the vote would be challenged.
The attorney general has no problem with the commission accepting a donation that is truly without ties, she said, but "we have great concerns that this gift comes with ties."
Rod Walton 581-8457