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Second Month Starts For "Poultry Litter" Trial

Sometime in the middle of next week, Oklahoma’s “poultry litter” trial against the mostly Arkansas-based chicken industry will begin its second month in U.S. District Court in Tulsa.

There is no end sight.

Nor is there any coherent narrative developing from days upon days of testimony.

Oklahoma is trying to prove that the chicken industry is responsible for polluting the Illinois River that the Sooner State shares with Arkansas.

Brand name poultry companies hire chicken farms to raise birds.   When they are taken away for slaughter, the bedding they were raised and their droppings is known as “poultry litter” and is spread on farmland as low-cost fertilizer.

Years of spreading “poultry litter” on the land and seeing it rained away into the watershed has greatly eroded the waters of the Illinois River, according to Oklahoma.

After years of negotiation ending in 2005, it sued a who’s who of the chicken industry to stop “poultry litter” disposal in the river basin.

Defendants in the trial include: Cargill Inc., Cal-Maine Foods Inc., Tyson Poultry Inc., Tyson Chicken Inc., Cobb-Vantress Inc., Cargill Turkey Production L.L.C., George’s Inc. George’s Farm Inc., Peterson Farms Inc. and Simmons Foods Inc.

Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson from the get-go brought on the South Carolina law firm of Motley Rice on a contingency fee basis.  It is the successor to the firm that won a $250 billion settlement in partnership with 25 state Attorney Generals against tobacco companies.

This means each side has a busload of attorneys in the courtroom and the trial moves slowly.

With Oklahoma attempting to put on its case, the chicken companies, to challenge the credibility of witnesses, and frustrate their testimony.

Interesting bits and pieces do get into the record.

Early on, we learned that Oklahoma hired off-duty Tulsa police officers and detectives to observe and report on the poultry industry in the eastern part of the state.  Together, the off duty cops took thousands of pictures and filed thousands of reports.

Oklahoma put 4,000 buildings under surveillance using high-resolution aerial photography.

Among the factoids that have come out during the first month of the trial, perhaps the most impacting is that the chicken/turkey population in the Illinois watershed went from 19 million birds in 1954 to 152 million in 2002.

Bert Fisher, a scientific expert called by the state, testified that “phosphorous in poultry litter polluted the watershed.”

“The total weight of poultry in the watershed has outweighed the sum of cattle, swine, and humans for some time,” Fisher said.

But when they got a chance to cross examine Fisher, defense attorneys challenged his credibility, gaining his admission that he’d hired his own three daughters and some friends under his contract with the state.

There is no jury in the trial.   Both sides agreed to have U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Frizell be the sole decider.  Former President George W. Bush appointed Judge Frizell to the federal bench.

The Cherokee Nation wants to be included as a plaintiff in the case, but Judge Frizell denied that request.   The tribe has since challenged the ruling in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals In Denver.

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