Pressure mounting in Oklahoma on poultry industry

Monday, October 11th 2004, 5:56 am
By: News On 6

PRYOR, Okla. (AP) _ Pressure is mounting on the poultry industry, from environmentalists and now the state attorney general's office, to clean up or be sued.

Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson has named five companies, collectively referred to as Tyson, as major contributors to phosphorous runoff pollution in watersheds in northeast Oklahoma. The companies include Tyson Foods Inc., Cargill Inc., Georges Inc., Simmons Foods Inc. and Peterson Farms Inc.

Although poultry officials say they do not know what the lawsuit grounds would be specifically, they do know it has to do with the management of poultry litter and water pollution.

``We don't want this to be a replay of the Tulsa suit where most of the money went to the law firm,'' said Jim Gipson, public relations consultant for the poultry companies.

The City of Tulsa sued those poultry companies for polluting the city's water supply, which comes from the Eucha-Spavinaw watershed. A settlement was reached without the lawsuit going to trial.

Janet Wilkerson, a spokeswoman for the poultry companies, said they are willing to come to an agreement to remove excess litter from the Oklahoma Scenic River watershed, but ``we want our money to go to solutions, not toward trial lawyers.''

Some poultry producers have voiced concern they have not been consulted about the plan to remove litter, how it will be accomplished and who will pay for it.

``We need input from them and we're going to get it,'' Wilkerson said, ``but they're not the ones getting sued.''

Poultry representatives say some phosphorus run-off is coming from other sources, including commercial fertilizers as well as homes and businesses with faulty septic systems.

Wilkerson said all those entities would need to work together to correct the pollution problem.

The poultry companies have provided the attorney general with a settlement proposal that outlines a plan to prevent litter pollution. The companies have also included a proposed consent decree, which would allow the courts to enforce the proposal.

Wilkerson said that, once the attorney general agrees to a phosphorus index, telling the industry how much litter can be land-applied as fertilizer, they will begin to manage litter inside those guidelines.

``We don't have a proportionate number,'' Wilkerson said.

Meanwhile, a third group wants its voice heard as part of the discussions between the industry and the attorney general's office.

The Oklahoma Farm Bureau says it is upset that the attorney general's office and Tyson have conducted negotiations without including the bureau or the producers they represent in the talks.

The Farm Bureau has threatened legal action of its own if the attorney general's office and the poultry firms continue to make decisions without the farm group's input.

``If the (attorney general) and the state's poultry integrators continue to set legislative policy through litigation, the Oklahoma Agriculture Legal Foundation will be forced to legally protect poultry producers,'' Steve Kouplen, a Beggs rancher and Farm Bureau president, said in a written statement.