Tulsa to consider litigation over fouled water

Thursday, November 1st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ Going to court may be the only way for Tulsa to protect its drinking water supply from further pollution, Mayor Susan Savage said Thursday.

Nutrients suspected of flowing from the vast poultry industry straddling the Oklahoma-Arkansas border continue to foul the water in Lakes Eucha and Spavinaw in northeast Oklahoma, studies show.

Regulations and voluntary efforts haven't made a significant difference in halting the pollution of the city's water supply, Savage said.

``In my personal opinion,'' she said, ``litigation is at this juncture the only solution that will end up making a difference.''

No decision has been made by the city whether to take legal action. But the Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority voted Wednesday to hire the Oklahoma City law firm McKinney & Stringer to research and examine legal options.

The head of the Poultry Federation, representing the industry in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri, said he was disappointed by Tulsa's move.

The industry has been working cooperatively to address the phosphorous concerns, said Morril Harriman, executive vice president of the Little Rock, Ark.-based federation.

``We are convinced that what we have been doing is reducing the amount of phosphorous going into the watershed from our industry, and will, over time, mitigate whatever impact poultry is having on Eucha-Spavinaw,'' he said.

Savage said she came to her own opinion about litigation ``very slowly and regretfully,'' but it will be up to the lawyers to decide whether legal action is a realistic course to take.

The city's water treatment costs have tripled in recent years in its fight to keep the water from tasting and smelling bad.

An Oklahoma State University study released last spring found that 74 percent of the phosphorous flowing into Lake Eucha comes from non-point sources, which can include chicken waste applied to land as fertilizer. Another 24 percent comes from the Decatur, Ark., wastewater plant, which is fed by a chicken processing plant.

The excess phosphorous is fueling algae growth, the source of the foul taste and odor.

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board found that the phosphorous load entering Lake Eucha would have to be reduced by 70 percent to improve the downstream water flowing into Lake Spavinaw and on to Tulsa.

Savage said an opinion issued by Attorney General Drew Edmondson provides a ``window of potential opportunity,'' pointing to poultry companies, not the individual poultry producers.

In the past, poultry companies have said contract growers, not them, are responsible for chicken waste applied to their land.

Edmondson found that if a corporation hires an independent contractor but controls every aspect of how the contractor does the job, the contractor is no longer independent, shifting liability to the corporation.

Savage said she could not say whether point-source pollution also would be a target of any potential litigation.

Oklahoma enacted legislation in 1998 aimed at non-point source pollution. It brought mandatory registration for poultry growers, along with soil-testing, training and fines for noncompliance.

Harriman said the poultry industry had worked with the Legislature on those regulations. It also began requiring farms on both sides of the state line to have litter management plans and use the best management practices in spreading poultry waste.

He noted other efforts, including transporting waste out of the watershed and exploring possible alternative uses of litter.

Harriman said little attention had been paid to other sources of phosphorous in the watershed, such as cattle, septic tanks or commercial fertilizer used by farmers.

``Until all these things are addressed, it is going to be difficult to gauge the impact of the poultry industry's efforts,'' Harriman said.

Savage has met with representatives from the poultry industry. And poultry officials said they were looking forward to meeting with her again. But Savage said virtually no progress has been made.

``There has really been no action,'' she said. ``All the while, the quality of the water continues to erode.''