When he steps up —in his boots and western suit with his cowboy hat on the table–he will look U.S. District Court Judge Greg Frizzell in the eye and say something like “Your honor, may it please the court.”

And with that the trial that Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson has waited more than four years for will begin today in Tulsa.  Across the courtroom, he will face a busload of lawyers from the Arkansas poultry industry.

They will square off over the issue of whether tons of poultry litter can be spread on the lands of the Illinois River Basin without wreaking environmental havoc on the public surface water.

Poultry litter is a mixture of raw poultry manure and bedding material such as sawdust, wood shavings or rice hulls.

Each year, an estimated 345,000 tons of chicken waste is produced in the 1,800 poultry houses in the one million acre Illinois River watershed that Oklahoma and Arkansas share.

Chicken farmers contract with poultry companies to raise the birds. The poultry companies argue, they neither own nor are responsible for the poultry litter.

Edmondson has little use for the poultry companies’ argument that it is not their problem.

The AG is fond of saying: “They own the birds.  They own the feed that goes into the birds.  They own the drugs that go into the birds to keep them healthy.  But they don’t own the stuff that comes out the other end?”

Edmondson will argue that year after year the disposal of tons of poultry litter on the land means bacteria and phosphorus content is being captured in the Illinois River, degrading once clear waters.

For the poultry industry, the wrong trial outcome could spell increased costs.  Now poultry litter has a value because it is used as fertilizer.  Oklahoma State University even runs a “poultry litter” market that currently has twice as many buyers as sellers.

But if it cannot be used as local fertilizer, chicken farmers might be stuck with transportation costs to get rid of the material. “It boils down to whether farmers can spread litter as fertilizer or have to have it transported outside the watershed,” says Marvin Childers, Poultry Federation spokesman.

To say today’s trial has been a long time in the making is hardly an understatement.  Filed in June 2004 after four years of negotiations between Oklahoma and the poultry companies failed, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver has already been involved in the case.

Oklahoma won an important early ruling in 2007 when Judge Frizzell ruled Edmondson did not have to take the case back to the Oklahoma Arkansas River Compact Commission.

In 2008, however, Judge Frizzell denied Oklahoma’s request for a temporary injunction barring the use of poultry litter as fertilizer in the basin.  He said Oklahoma had not presented evidence showing the river was solely polluted by poultry litter and not from other sources.

So far, the 10th Circuit has upheld the district court’s decisions.

Continue Reading Shootout in Tulsa: OK v Big Chicken