A “scientifically robust model of the Illinois River watershed” will be built in the next year and half by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the purpose of establishing “maximum daily loads” of pollutants like phosphorus from poultry litter.

EPA told state officials in Oklahoma and Arkansas about its plans to “take the lead” in cleaning up the waters of the Illinois River Basin in October, after a federal trial started in Tulsa over whether the major poultry companies in the area are responsible for pollution of the watershed.

Steve Thompson, executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, was called to testify in the federal trial about EPA’s plans.  Thompson said the department would adhere to whatever EPA comes up with, but doubted it would move as quickly as its original plan indicates.

Closing arguments in Oklahoma’s lawsuit against Tyson Foods Inc., and several other poultry companies are now set for Feb. 11th.   The Tulsa trial began last Sept. 24 before U.S. District Judge Gregory Fizzell, who is conducting the trial without a jury.

Oklahoma wants to hold the poultry companies responsible for the handling and disposal of chicken manure that is disposed of with a mix of bedding materials that are known as “poultry litter.”  Processors contract with local farmers and ranchers to raise chickens.

When the chickens are taken to slaughter, the poultry litter that is left behind is often spread on the land as a low-cost fertilizer.  Much of it ends up running off into the watershed.

Oklahoma and the poultry companies have both presented their respective cases.  Before closing arguments, the court is allowing Oklahoma to call a couple of rebuttal witnesses to poultry industry witnesses.

EPA entering the field isn’t the only unknown hanging over the trial.   The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver is deciding whether Judge Fizzell made a mistake when he excluded the Cherokee Nation from joining the State of Oklahoma as a plaintiff in the trial.

The potential for other issues to be taken to the higher court in Denver might be what Fizzell had in mind when he said, “this will not be the last battle.”

Water quality advocates in areas of the country where chickens, turkeys, and other poultry are raised are watching the Tulsa trial closely. 

The poultry industry is putting on an aggressive defense in a trial with hundreds of exhibits and a transcript that now exceeds 10,000 pages.

They’ve produced experts to rip apart Oklahoma’s studies that show phosphorus runoff from chicken manure is degrading the water. They’ve pointed the finger at other sources of water pollution like urban development and four-legged farm animals like cows.

Since it was filed in 2005, the poultry industry has also depicted the lawsuit as part of a crusade by Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson.  Gov. Brad Henry and Secretary of State M. Susan Savage are now giving their AG some cover.

“As Gov. Brad Henry has made clear, this is the state of Oklahoma’s lawsuit, not Edmondson’s, and the Henry administration is in full support of the ongoing legal efforts to protect the state’s water quality.”

Savage says over the past 30 years other sectors like municipal waste treatment operators have accepted regulation and made changes to significantly reduce phosphorus and bacteria levels “while the poultry industry has done virtually nothing…”