They may be close to parking the “Busload of Lawyers.” That was the moniker given to Oklahoma v. Tyson Foods filed in the federal District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma in 2005, a mere 18 years ago.
Then Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmonson on June 13, 2005, sued Tyson, Cargill, Cobb-Vantress, Aviagen, Cal-Maine Foods, George’s, Peterson Farms, Simmons Foods, Willow Brook Foods, and all their various subsidiaries.
From the beginning, the civil case was about damages to Oklahoma from the widespread water pollution from poultry companies located mostly in Arkansas. And it became the “Busload of Lawyers” case because so many defense and state attorneys were involved.
The case went to trial, before federal Judge Gregory K. Frizzell, on Sept. 21, 2009, ending on Feb. 18, 2010. Frizzell took 10 years before saying anything about a ruling. In early 2020 just a few days before the pandemic, the judge said he was polishing a 250-page opinion.
Earlier this year, he finally published that ruling for nine poultry companies with operations n western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma found to have produced chicken manure and used it as fertilizer, causing excessive phosphorus runoff polluting Lake Tenkiller, the Illinois River, and other scenic waterways in Oklahoma
Fizzell’s long-awaited ruling falls short of barring the use of chicken manure as fertilizer, but chicken companies are warned to limit its use. The judge originally gave the defendants until March 17 this year to remedy the situation with Oklahoma
But that deadline has been allowed to slip. Judge Fizzelll wants the parties to come up with a plan that will both restore the watershed and control any future pollution. A retired federal judge has now been brought in for mediation.
Oklahoma’s current Attorney General, Gentner Drummond, said Fizzell’s Jan. 9, 2023, ruling was a “great and historic day for Oklahoma.” He does recognize “improvements in waste disposal” that poultry producers made in more recent years,
Edmondson, now in private practice, said there are more chickens in the watershed now than there were in 2005. While he has no further involvement in the historic case, Edmonson said the growers are now going to have to take action.
Oklahoma’s Water Resources Board has imposed phosphorus standards since 2002. Edmondson said the issue was headed to federal court after pre-lawsuit settlement offers from the poultry industry fell short.
If the mediation does not work, the judge’s ruling says the Court “shall enter a judgment.”
“The Environmental Protection Agency has recognized that nutrient pollution caused by phosphorus is one of America’s most widespread, costly, and challenging environmental problems,” the ruling said.
Phosphorus promotes algae growth that impairs water quality and limits beneficial uses of the water, such as irrigation of crops.
The Illinois River is a 145-mile-long tributary of the Arkansas River in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Oklahoma has long blamed Arkansas for polluting the popular river,
Chicken manure is very high in nitrogen and also contains potassium and phosphorus. The high nitrogen and balanced nutrients are why chicken manure compost is a favored kind of manure to use as fertilizer. How the water quality impacts of the runoff, however, is pretty easy to follow.
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