Oklahoma’s newly elected leadership, Republicans Governor-elect Mary Fallin and Attorney General-elect Scott Pruitt, say they have the future of the state’s litigation against the poultry industry over its pollution of public waters under formal review.
Executive power in the Sooner State will turn over in January when both Gov. Brad Henry and Attorney General Drew Edmonson, both Democrats, are replaced, respectively, by Fallin and Pruitt.
Edmondson believes poultry litter from chickens being raised under contact by small producers for large companies like Tyson’s are responsible for polluting the Illinois River basin in the area along the border of northeastern Oklahoma and northwestern Arkansas.
The outgoing Attorney General held protracted negotiations with some of the top companies in the poultry industry, most headquartered in Arkansas, until filing lawsuits against them in 2005.
The court battle between Oklahoma and the poultry companies has been long and complex with some issues working their way from the District Court in Tulsa up to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Last year, there was a trial that lasted several months before Judge Gregory K. Frizzell in Tulsa.
Since the trial ended, however, there has been no decision out of the federal judge, who heard the case without a jury.
Edmondson wanted to be governor, but when challenged by Lt. Gov. Jari Askins in the Democratic primary he found himself doing poorly in the chicken-friendly areas of eastern Oklahoma.
After voting against Edmondson, the poultry industry shifted to helping Pruitt raise about $15,000–not an insignificant amount in a largely rural state–in his race for Attorney General.
“While Fallin and Pruitt have been coy—at least publicly—about their intentions, stakeholders in the poultry industry seem absolutely giddy about the turn of events, talking about “having an open discussion” and looking at the case “with a fresh set of eyes,” editorial writers for the Tulsa World have written. “A Fallin spokesman went so far as to suggest environmental laws “should be written in a way that isn’t unfair to agriculture.”
“There’s been a lot of debate over whether poultry waste is the primary problem in the watershed, but there is no debate on this point: The water quality in the area has degraded significantly over the years, and something has caused it,” the Tulsa World added. “The problem will only grow worse if the root cause isn’t addressed.”
Until now, Oklahoma’s goal was to break up the common practice of poultry litter being spread on the land after the contract chicken operations are through with it. When new, the wood shaving, sawdust, and organic material are used as bedding, but it becomes mostly poultry manure. After its spread on the land as a low-cost fertilizer, it eventually drains into the watershed, raising the phosphorous levels.
An estimated 150 million chickens are raised annually in the one million acre Illinois River watershed.
At trial, the poultry industry argued that large animal agricultural operations, municipal system, and leaking septic tanks were responsible for degrading water quality.
Gov.-elect Fallin was previously the congresswoman from Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District, which she has served since 2007. AG-election Pruitt is a co-owner and since 2002 the managing partner of Oklahoma City triple A baseball club, the Redhawks.
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