Tulsa settles lawsuit over drinking water pollution

Monday, March 24th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- The city of Tulsa came to terms Monday with six Arkansas firms and one town accused of tainting the city's drinking water supply with tons of poultry waste.

Details of the agreement were not released, but the judge who presided over last-minute negotiations said it included "remedial aspects" that would improve the watershed for two water-supply reservoirs.

"Basically we settled the case and worked hard to do it," U.S. Magistrate Sam Joyner said.

The Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority and the city council of Decatur, Ark., must approve the settlement, Joyner said. Both are expected to meet Wednesday.

Tulsa and the utility blamed the handling of poultry waste by farms serving the six poultry companies for a foul taste and odor in the drinking water of several hundred thousand northeast Oklahomans.

The lawsuit alleged that Tyson Foods Inc., Cobb-Vantress Inc., Peterson Farms Inc., Simmons Foods Inc., Cargill Inc. and George's Inc. were responsible for 170 million pounds of nitrogen- and phosphorous-rich poultry waste each year in the watershed.

Excess phosphorous has led to explosive algae growth in the reservoirs, triggering the taste and odor problems.

The city sought the reimbursement of $4 million it has spent since 1997 investigating and treating the problems. It also sought punitive damages and the court-ordered cleanup of all soils, streams and lakes in the watershed.

The city of Decatur is accused of contributing to the phosphorous load in its treatment of waste water from a Peterson processing plant.

The parties were admonished by the judge against releasing any details of the settlement until the utility board and Decatur officials review it.

The jury pool had assembled Monday morning, but court quickly recessed. Six-and-a-half hours later, Joyner told U.S. District Judge Claire Eagan that the sides had reached an agreement.

"They have resolved this matter and there will be no jury trial," Eagan told the jurors. Some in the jury pool applauded.

Joyner said the agreement came after four previous daylong meetings, including one in which only experts were present and two without lawyers.

The closeness of the trial and the remedial aspects may have aided the settlement, Joyner said. The remedial terms were not options that would have been available to the jury, he said.

The judge said he had been in contact with the various parties following the lawsuit's filing in December 2001.

"Dialogue has been ongoing from the beginning," he said.

His last effort came Monday morning when "I made the inquiries and encouraged them to get together again."