Poultry Industry Fight Rages On

Sunday, December 3rd 2006, 2:24 pm
By: News On 6

DECATUR, Ark. (AP) The overpowering ammonia stench from a barn of chicken waste is enough to make eyes water and stomachs churn.

But it doesn't seem to faze Sheri Herron.

``It smells like money,'' Herron says of the waste, which will be used as fertilizer. ``It's good, good stuff.''

Each year, hundreds of thousands of tons of litter are produced in chicken houses throughout the Illinois River watershed in northeast Oklahoma and western Arkansas. Herron, a soil scientist, has been hired to see that some of it gets trucked out of the area.

Her firm, Best Management Practices Inc., was set up in 2004 by five Arkansas poultry companies to help export litter from the Illinois River watershed.

But Oklahoma officials and environmentalists call it too little, too late, and say the program is only removing a minuscule amount of hazardous waste from the watershed.

They contend that years of illegal spreading of the waste, which contains bacteria, antibiotics, growth hormones and harmful metals, is killing Oklahoma's scenic lakes.

``These aren't grandpa's barnyard chickens,'' says Ed Brocksmith, a founder of the group Save the Illinois River.

For decades, Oklahoma and Arkansas have battled over pollution, with Oklahoma pointing the finger in the late 1990s at Arkansas poultry companies, saying excess phosphorous coming from across the state line was polluting Oklahoma's waterways.

Of the nearly 1,700 poultry houses in the Illinois watershed, nearly 75 percent are in Arkansas.

Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson filed a federal lawsuit against 14 Arkansas-based poultry companies last year, accusing them of polluting the Illinois watershed with chicken litter.

``In terms of their efforts, we've seen virtually nothing, and I'm talking over the last several decades,'' Edmondson said. ``They had an opportunity to settle for nothing, all they had to do was agree to remove the excess litter.''

Edmondson said the pollution has rendered Lake Tenkiller in northeastern Oklahoma 70 percent oxygen dead and has accused poultry companies of treating Oklahoma's rivers like open sewers.

The industry is swinging back, accusing the attorney general of picking an easy target for his lawsuit instead of going after other polluters, such as developers or the beef cattle industry.

``It's easy to characterize it as an out of state polluter,'' says John Ward, with The Poultry Federation. ``It's a bunch of good people just getting beat up.''

For Herron's part, she wants the chance to prove the litter removal is working, and says she's signed up 225 growers in both the Eucha/Spavinaw and Illinois River watersheds.

From September 2005 through August 2006, her firm reported more than 52,000 tons of litter hauled away.

That represents 1.5 million pounds of phosphorous trucked as far as 250 miles out of the watershed to fertilize sod and hay farms, organic nurseries and fruit orchards.

``We have an amazing fertilizer, but it can be abused,'' Herron says one recent afternoon on an Arkansas poultry farm. ``Is it? I don't know.''

Edmondson expects to go to trial in 2008, but both sides say they remain open to the possibility to settle out of court.

No dollar amounts have been publicly disclosed on what it would take to stop a trial, but Edmondson says it would take ``some sign of good faith'' on the part of the industry to bring the parties back to the table.

``They're used to getting their own way, they're headquartered in another state where nothing passes the legislature without their blessing, they're not used to somebody not bending to their will,'' Edmondson says.

So the poultry industry is trying to make its case while girding for the worst, hiring attorneys, a public relations firm and an advertising agency.

They say chicken litter only contributes part of the phosphorous pollution to the Illinois watershed, pinning some the blame on northwest Arkansas cities, pollution from cattle and rapid development.

``We're not this sinister (industry),'' says Janet Wilkerson of Decatur, Ark.-based Peterson Farms, the largest employer in the town of 1,300. ``For us to be singled out, it's just ludicrous.''

Companies like Peterson, which also is named in the lawsuit, say if Edmondson gets a huge settlement, either in or out of court, it could put dozens of small farmers out of business because they will get less from the companies for the chickens they raise.

But Brocksmith calls that threat a bunch of ``chicken litter.''

``It's a scare tactic, and it has worked successfully to the advantage of the poultry companies because they have raised the image of farmers being hurt and being run out of business,'' he says.

One farmer, Aaron Holcombe, disputes a perception that people like him are illegally spreading thousands of pounds of waste on their land to get rid of it.

``It sounds like you've got a chemical factory and you're just dumping buckets of pollution in the river,'' says Holcombe, who has two chicken barns on his 110-acre property in Jay, Okla.

Although he has his cattle operation to fall back on if times get tough, he is certain smaller farmers could go belly-up if the poultry industry is ordered to pay.

``You can't not be after the grower if you're after the (poultry) company,'' Holcombe says. ``That's the way the structure is.''