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Animal waste bill alarms environmentalists, Edmondson

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A year after surviving an attempt to restrict him from filing lawsuits, Attorney General Drew Edmondson says another bill is before the Legislature as a consequence of his legal battle with the poultry industry and efforts to protect Oklahoma waters.

Edmondson has joined a chorus of environmentalists, including the Sierra Club, in condemning legislation pending in the state Senate that would declare that animal waste, including the feces and carcasses of any captive animal, is not a hazardous waste.

Farming advocates, including the Oklahoma Farm Bureau and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, support the measure and say it will prevent poultry and hog farmers from bearing the extra expense of disposing of litter, manure and the bodies of dead animals like a hazardous waste that must be specially treated.

Edmondson and other opponents believe the measure is designed to protect poultry companies that the attorney general has accused of polluting streams in northeastern Oklahoma by improperly disposing of hundreds of thousands of tons of chicken litter containing high levels of such substances as arsenic, copper and zinc.

The substances are added to chicken feed by poultry companies and are defined as hazardous under federal law, the attorney general said.

``Saying it is not hazardous does not make it safe,'' Edmondson said.

Edmondson and the Sierra Club also expressed concern about the impact the legislation might have on attempts to dispose of the carcasses of animals who may die from the bird flu if the virulent virus infects bird populations in the state. So far, bird flu has been detected in Asia, Europe and Africa.

``A dead chicken is not necessarily hazardous. But a dead chicken that dies of avian flu is extremely hazardous,'' the attorney general said.

``What happens if we get bird flu here? We won't be able to say those carcasses are hazardous waste?'' said Keith Smith, lobbyist for the Oklahoma Chapter of the Sierra Club.

``If it is hazardous waste, it is hazardous waste. You can't make it unhazardous,'' Smith said.

The bill, by Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole, was sent to the Senate floor on Feb. 16 by the Senate Energy and Environment Committee. If passed by the Senate it will then go to the House, which last year led an effort to restrict Edmondson's ability to file lawsuits on the state's behalf like the one he filed against 14 major poultry companies in June.

The lawsuit alleges that the companies, including Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, the world's largest meat processor, are applying excessive amounts of chicken litter in the Illinois River watershed along the border between Oklahoma and Arkansas where people fish and swim.

High phosphorous levels in the waste cause excessive algae growth and can eventually cause high levels of cancer-causing chemicals in drinking water, according to the lawsuit.

Currently, every water source in Cherokee County, an area dotted with poultry houses that the Illinois River passes through, exceeds federal levels for carcinogens, Edmondson said.

``This can't be a good thing for public health,'' the attorney general said.

Lori Patterson, vice president of public policy for the Farm Bureau, said her organization supports the bill because farmers want the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry to continue regulating concentrated animal feeding operations, including poultry and hog operations.

``If we classify it as hazardous waste, it would move it to another realm,'' Patterson said.

All animal manure and other waste could eventually be classified as hazardous, forcing farmers and ranchers to pay high fees to treat and destroy waste and carcasses, she said.

Ron Sparks, commissioner of agriculture in Alabama and commissioner of the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture, said chicken litter is composed mostly of nitrogen and phosphorous, common ingredients found in fertilizer.

``Neither one of them has been deemed toxic,'' said Sparks, a member of the executive committee of NASDA. A policy statement adopted by the group says animal waste should not be considered hazardous waste.

``Poultry litter has been used in agriculture for many, many, many years,'' Sparks said. ``We don't classify chicken litter as hazardous waste. Congress didn't intend for poultry litter to be in that.''

But Edmondson said the legislation's assertion that animal waste is not hazardous runs afoul of the facts. His agency's analysis of soil where chicken litter has been applied shows consistently high levels of hazardous materials.

``It ends up in the soil,'' Edmondson said. And removing it could cost the poultry industry tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs.

``It's an economic problem for them. But that does not forgive their responsibility,'' Edmondson said. ``The danger is cumulative. And it has accumulated over the past decades.''

Oklahoma's epidemiologist, Dr. Brett Cauthen, said it is difficult to say what impact the waste products will have, if any.

``Animal waste does carry human pathogens in it,'' Cauthen said. ``We would expect that the animal waste be handled cautiously.''

Although bird flu has not been detected in Oklahoma or anywhere else in North America, the virus would be present in infected poultry and their waste products, Cauthen said.

``So, we would be concerned about how those waste products are handled,'' he said. ``We would want to make sure that waste wasn't spread around.''
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