LINCOLN, Ark. (AP) _ Farmer Gene Pharr scoffs at suggestions that chicken litter is a hazardous substance and fears that a lawsuit targeting the industry could have the waste declared a noxious product on a par with industrial solvents, pesticide manufacturing residue and discarded batteries.
Decades of spreading chicken waste on the Ozark Mountains have turned the region a lush green, but a federal court lawsuit filed by Oklahoma's attorney general could stop the practice and, according to Pharr, gut an industry that over 75 years helped transform an isolated region into a vital part of the economy.
``We could see the loss of this industry to this country,'' said Pharr, who keeps 125,000 chickens in five houses on his northwestern Arkansas farm.
Tyson Foods Inc., based at Springdale, is the world's largest meat producer and Arkansas is usually ranked first or second nationally among states in poultry production.
Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson last month sued 14 poultry producers, including several owned by Tyson, alleging their waste is polluting scenic rivers across the state line.
Pharr, chicken farmers and the poultry companies say an Oklahoma victory could set a national precedent and threaten poultry-producing regions across America. Edmondson is using the same South Carolina law firm that handled lawsuits against tobacco companies.
``The poultry industry is not the tobacco industry and poultry litter is not a hazardous waste,'' said Janet Wilkerson of Peterson Farms.
Decatur-based Peterson is serving as a spokesman for the poultry companies being sued. Farmers have united in a group called Poultry Partners in an effort to have a voice they say they didn't have in previous litigation.
Wilkerson said the poultry industry hadn't responded to criticism in the past and now is suffering for not telling its side of the story. ``We haven't said anything for a long time and that was the worst thing we could do. We have quietly gone about our business,'' she said.
``We need to tell our story and we have a good story to tell,'' she said.
The poultry industry has been good for northwestern Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. Tyson is a Fortune 100 company that had $26.4 billion in revenue last year, and thousand of people work in the industry _ from hatcheries to slaughter houses to processing plants.
The Oklahoma lawsuit, filed June 13, seeks unspecified compensation to clean up alleged pollution damage from poultry litter runoff that flows from Arkansas farms into Oklahoma, mainly in the Illinois River watershed.
According to the lawsuit, Arkansas has 2,363 chicken houses in the watershed while Oklahoma has 508. The chickens add phosphorus waste equivalent to 10.7 million people per year, Edmondson says.
Poultry companies say Edmondson is ignoring phosphorus added to the water by a growing population, but while the region is rapidly expanding _ the Milken Institute rated it as the nation's No. 1 economic growth region in 2003 _ it still has well fewer than 1 million people.
With 1,000 employees, Peterson Farms is one of the smaller companies named in the lawsuit. Lloyd Peterson founded the company in Decatur in 1939 and helped build the local industry with Tyson Foods founder John Tyson.
Peterson Farms suffered most after the city of Tulsa, Okla., sued in 2002 over pollution in the Eucha-Spavinaw watershed. Peterson was left responsible for the largest share after the case was settled in a decision the company now regrets.
``We thought that it was a huge lawsuit and it could have a bankrupted us and it could have gone on forever. Had we gotten a runaway verdict, Peterson wouldn't be here today,'' said Kerry Kinyon, Peterson's vice president of operations and former chief operating officer.
And Kinyon believes Tulsa's lawsuit prompted Edmondson's. In the Tulsa case, the city received only $200,000 of the $7.5 million settlement, with the bulk going to lawyers. Edmondson says Oklahoma's contract with lawyers in the latest case states that fees and expenses won't toll more than 50 percent.
The Arkansas growers question why Oklahoma sued rather than seek more regulatory standards. They say money would be better spent developing alternative ways to use poultry litter, such as in composting or in generating electricy.
``The environmental agencies have been silent,'' Kinyon said. ``We have asked Edmondson if the state of Oklahoma still is not pleased with the amount of phosphorus in its water.'' If it isn't, ``enact tougher standards,'' Kinyon said.
``This is about money and politics,'' Wilkerson said. ``There have been no laws broken. If the state of Oklahoma thinks there needs to be tougher regulations, they need to enact them rather than doing it in the courtroom.''
Attempts to have animal waste declared a noxious substance has been used in court before. In Texas, the city of Waco, alarmed by phosphorus levels in the North Bosque River, is using the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act to fight dairies.
The Oklahoma lawsuit is generating hard feelings. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has threatened to raise standards for the quality of the Arkansas River, a commercial waterway that flows from Oklahoma into Arkansas. State Rep. Mike Kenney, R-Siloam Springs, said his town may cut services provided to West Siloam Springs, Okla., if it must spend more to improve water quality.
``It seems the Oklahoma attorney general is set on dismantling an industry. The impact isn't just to the industry, it is going to be felt by every community,'' Kenney said. ``Over time, because of litigation, the cost of doing business will be driven up and I think you will see the industry move to Central America or Asia and we will regulate ourselves out of business.''