Eastern Oklahoma battles chicken barns over runoff fears

Monday, January 28th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NARCISSA, Okla. (AP) _ Rocky Flick is riled about a plan to build football-field sized chicken barns on the wide-open prairie beside his rural Ottawa County home.

``If people had to live next to something that bothers them, maybe chicken would be less popular,'' said Flick, pointing out the potential location on a treeless landscape a half-mile away.

The fight over 90 proposed chicken barns churning out 11 million birds a year around tiny Narcissa is a lightning rod in a growing war pitting residents against the poultry industry.

At stake, residents insist, is the future of the region's clean water supply.

Flick and members of a group called Citizens for Responsible Development in Northeast Oklahoma are asking policy-makers for help.

But two other landowner groups and the city of Tulsa have filed separate lawsuits against chicken companies for water runoff tainted with excessive phosphorous.

Phosphorous, an active ingredient in fertilizer, spurs algae blooms that can sap water of oxygen. Left is foul-tasting water and conditions that can kill fish and other aquatic life.

The nutrient, the lawsuits charge, is from chicken litter spread out as fertilizer over a massive water shed in portions of Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas. Runoff flows into lakes on dammed up tributaries of the Arkansas River, which empties into the Mississippi.

The Oklahoma lawsuits appear to be among the first in which residents and muncipalities have taken aim at the poultry industry in a national debate over water contamination from phosphorous.

Phosphorous from agriculture feeding operations, manufactured fertilizer and other sources is blamed for contaminating Chesapeake Bay and the Florida Everglades.

``It's a major national problem,'' said David Guest with Earth Justice in Florida, an environmental group.

Tulsa, suing poultry giant Tyson Foods of Springdale, Ark., and others has spent millions on water treatment to remedy the problem.

Nationwide, an industry expanding to meet the country's insatiable appetite for chicken, creates about 2.5 million tons of litter a year, according to industry estimates. Each American eats an average of 77 pounds of chicken a year.

The industry in Oklahoma grew 53 percent in a decade, spurred by legislation that encouraged corporate farming.

Chicken barns in six northeast Oklahoma counties already create 157,250 tons of litter, according to the state Agriculture Department.

The Ottawa County Rural Water District last week reneged on an earlier vote to sell water to a group of 15 families called Prosper Farms that want to build the 90 chicken barns.

Prosper Farms may get its water from its own wells instead, but is considering reducing the number of barns it plans to build to satisfy irate landowners, said Buddy Pilgrim, head of Prosper Farms and chief executive of chicken processor Simmons Foods of Siloam Springs, Ark. Simmons is also a defendant in the Tulsa lawsuit.

Flick and others who live closest to the Narcissa sites south of Miami fear lower land values and odor. Throughout the region, residents are alarmed about the future of lakes that are economic mainstays of area resort towns.

Robert Nold, mayor of Grove, which owes its livelihood to Grand Lake, said he is concerned about waste taken from the proposed barns.

``The litter taken out could be spread out in this area and we don't want to see the water in our lake polluted,'' he said.

Pilgrim insists litter from the Narcissa barns would not taint any lakes. Litter would be removed and taken elsewhere. He and other chicken industry officials say their industry is environmentally responsible and that runoff with phosphorous from litter is not their fault.

Landowners use the litter, mixed at the barns with rice hulls and wood shavings, to fertilize their land.

``It's the landowners choice whether they use chicken litter or some manufactured fertilizers,'' Pilgrim said.

But the two groups of suing residents are armed with a state attorney general's opinion that the chicken companies can be held responsible.

Property owners allege in two lawsuits that processing plant waste overwhelmed treatment facilities and flowed untreated, polluting Grand Lake from tributaries. They also contend that runoff over litter-strewn lands is responsible.

``I think most of the citizenry is not aware of what is happening to all of the lakes of significant size that receive waters from Missouri and Arkansas,'' plaintiffs attorney Chuck Shipley of Tulsa said.

Pilgrim said phosphorous in lakes could come from septic tanks around lake communities. Also, manufactured fertilizer on golf courses and crops could be to blame.

Shipley said other sources could contribute but added that septic tanks would leach into the subsurface soil and adhere to it without flowing off. The same is not true of phosphorous from litter on the surface.

In Narcissa, residents learned of the proposed barns when the water district first agreed to sell Prosper Farms water last month. Each barn would consume 1,000 gallons a day.

The district board reversed itself after protests from Flick and others.

The Miami city council adopted a resolution opposing the project for fear that it would lower property values and hobble the city's efforts to attract new business, City Manager Mike Spurgeon said.

The Tar Creek region just north of Miami is already the nation's top Superfund site because of leftover waste from mining operations.

Pilgrim said the Narcissa project would help the environment because the barns are the most environmentally advanced available. They replace older barns elsewhere that fatten chickens for Simmons.

Some residents were given a tour of similar new barns Wednesday.

For Flick, president of a plastics product manufacturer in Miami, the barns could mean the end of a way of life.

``We're not against farming, we're not against chicken,'' he said. ``It's just the way it's being done.''