What happens if evidence, sitting in a drawer, changes before a judge has time to write a decision?
Just that may have happened in the ongoing saga of Oklahoma’s lawsuit against the largely Arkansas-based poultry industry for polluting the Illinois River with poultry litter.
Roll back a year ago, when one of the more dramatic moments as Oklahoma made its case to U.S. District Court Judge Gregory K. Frizzell in Tulsa was its attempt to introduce research by the University of South Florida’s Valerie Harwood as evidence.
Professor Harwood, Oklahoma’s expert witness, testified that she could track poultry waste from it source to the Illinois River watershed by using a “biomarker.” The poultry industry fought back, saying Harwood’s work was flawed and had not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Now, after first being published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, Harwood’s study is also being published in the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology. That was the publication that rejected her work on the eve of the trial, which ended almost a year ago.
It is not known whether the publications will cause Judge Frizzell to move Harwood’s work from his “junk science” pile to the evidence he considers accepted science.
Much more has changed in the last year. Former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who sued the poultry companies who were active in the state in 2005, was defeated in last July’s Democratic primary for governor. For five years Edmondson traded blows with the chicken company lawyers over every development in the case.
Now neither new Gov. Mary Fallin nor Attorney General E. Scott Pruitt are saying anything about Oklahoma’s ongoing lawsuit against the poultry industry. After the November election, both were reported to be thinking about dropping the litigation, but now they are apparently waiting for the judge’s decision like everyone else.
Tyson spokesman Gary Michelson continues to speak out. After learning that Harwood’s work would be published, he pointed out that the Florida professor did not provide the actual data and testing for peer review.
On the environmental side, observers acknowledged studies usually have to be replicated by multiple researchers before they can be effectively used in the courts. The end result could be that the research the chicken industry fought so aggressively to keep out of the Oklahoma trial could defeat them in another place, at another time.
But not here, where more than 1,800 chicken ranches are spread out over the one million acre Illinois River watershed along the Oklahoma-Arkansas border and where poultry litter, a composite of chicken waste and bedding materials, is used as a cheap source of fertilizer.