Chicken farmers fight state's plan to test soil

Saturday, October 22nd 2005, 11:31 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Several Delaware County poultry farmers are fighting efforts by the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture to conduct soil tests on their land.

Earlier this week, the state agriculture agency obtained administrative warrants to do the testing in connection with a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Drew Edmondson.

Edmondson has sued 14 poultry companies, alleging excess chicken litter spread as fertilizer is polluting eastern Oklahoma watersheds. Phosphorus contained in the chicken litter can create algae blooms, choke aquatic life and cause odor and taste problems in drinking water.

The companies and the owners of four individual farms are seeking a motion to quash the warrants and restrain the department from conducting the testing or require it to follow what they believe are proper testing procedures.

The farmers allege the department wants to test for things above and beyond its authority and will not use the proper testing process.

The agency disagrees.

``We believe the department has the authority to track nutrients,'' said Tulsa attorney Michael Graves, representing the individual farmers. ``A lot of the substances they want to test for are not nutrients.''

The department wants to conduct soil tests for phosphorus, soluble nitrate, nitrogen, ammonium, bacteria and other items.

``Testing for heavy metals is not a part of our usual protocol but will be included in these samples to address persistent concerns that these pollutants have been introduced into the watershed,'' state Agriculture Secretary Terry Peach said.

The farmers initially agreed to allow soil samples then disagreed with the parameters of the tests being proposed, Agriculture Department spokesman Jack Carson said.

Carson said it was not unusual for the department to get administrative warrants from a judge to conduct tests.

``We have no reason to believe anyone is out of compliance with the laws,'' Carson said. ``In fact, we believe they are in compliance.''

The farmers are also concerned that their farms could be exposed to a poultry respiratory disease that has been spreading in Arkansas, Graves said.

The farms are subject to heightened biosecurity protocols because of a public alert concerning the disease, according to court documents filed by the companies.

The farms are owned by individuals but raise chickens for poultry companies including George's, Cobb-Vantress, Tyson Chicken and Simmons Foods, which are named in Edmondson's lawsuit.

``Ultimately, this soil survey will help assure compliance with both the Oklahoma Registered Poultry Feeding Operations Act and the Oklahoma Poultry Waste Applicators Certification Act,'' Peach said. ``We believe that a prosperous poultry industry and a clean environment are both important to Oklahoma and want to do everything in our power to help the two coexist. In the long run, that is what we expect to accomplish with this testing program.''

A hearing on the matter is set for Wednesday in Delaware County.