TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Evidence dismissed as "junk science" during Oklahoma's fight against pollution from the Arkansas poultry industry has been accepted for publication in a scientific journal, but chicken growers and a lawyer specializing in environmental law say the research provides no smoking gun.
It is unlikely that the recently accepted work by University of South Florida professor Valerie Harwood will have any bearing now on Oklahoma's 2005 lawsuit claiming that runoff from Arkansas poultry farms fouled the scenic Illinois River. A judge finished hearing testimony in the case last year and a decision is pending.
The lawsuit's supporters say Harwood has proven it is possible to track pollution from chicken waste into Oklahoma's watershed. A spokesman for Tyson Foods Inc., the world's largest meat producer and a defendant in the case, said Harwood failed to provide a peer-review with a complete set of data.
Oklahoma's attorney general declined to comment on the matter Thursday, citing the pending litigation.
Harwood's work was recently accepted by the journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, the same publication that had earlier rejected her work. Her research was also published last year in in the Journal of Applied Microbiology.
As an expert witness hired by the state, Harwood sought to show a connection between bacteria in the million-acre Illinois River watershed and the tons of chicken waste produced by large chicken operations in the area. She testified during a preliminary injunction hearing that she had identified a poultry litter-specific "biomarker," and reportedly traced a path that contamination from poultry waste travels from fields into the watershed — a region dotted with hundreds of chicken houses that produces billions of pounds of the nation's poultry.
Attorneys for the poultry industry successfully fought her technique in court, arguing that her methods were unsound because they had not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. A federal judge sided with the poultry attorneys, and dismissed Harwood's research as unreliable.
Harwood said her work now gives environmentalists a "much more specific finger to point."
"In science, a lot of really good papers get rejected and it could be for a variety of reasons," Harwood said. "I knew it was good work and that it was going to get published."
The poultry industry maintained Thursday that Harwood's methodology was flawed.
"It appears Harwood failed to provide the reviewers for this journal with all the information needed to judge the reliability of her work," said Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson. "For example, she didn't provide the research and testing done by microbiologists for the defendant poultry companies nor did she disclose the court rejection of her work as unreliable based on the testing and data supplied by the defendants' experts."
Mickelson also said the article omitted "numerous samples that contradict her conclusions" and didn't disclose that her bacteria testing "consistently failed to meet applicable EPA standards."
"Had Harwood supplied the peer-reviewers with the full body of information available to the trial court, we're confident they would have rejected her work as unreliable," Mickelson said.
Harwood said the practice of including research by others is "never done" and questioned the quality of work done by scientists hired by the poultry industry.
Lise Spacapan, an attorney and past chairwoman of the toxic torts and environmental law committee for the Chicago-based Defense Research Institute, said scientific studies typically need to be replicated before scientists accept the work as sound.
"If there's only one study that's ever been done and published, it probably provided fairly weak support," she said. "(Harwood's) work was not accepted by journals when those journals had the defense expert rebuttal reports.
"The peer review is only as good as the information that's provided to the reviewers," she said.
Oklahoma has argued that the poultry industry, motivated by greed, cut corners when getting rid of thousands of tons of chicken waste and allowed it to pollute a sensitive watershed. The result, it said, turned a once-pristine recreational area enjoyed by tens of thousands of visitors each year into a "green, slimy mess."
For decades, the state argued, the industry disposed of hundreds of thousands of tons of chicken litter each year by giving it to local crop farmers to use as fertilizer. The state says the companies knew the litter — the feathers, droppings and bedding left in barns after birds are taken to slaughter — was harming the watershed, but that it was cheaper to give it to the farmers than to dispose of it properly.
Attorneys for the industry claimed their clients handled the waste responsibly and lawfully, and said Oklahoma failed to produce any evidence that the waste threatened people or the environment.