TULSA, Okla. (AP) — The first witness has yet to be called in Oklahoma's 2005 pollution lawsuit against the Arkansas poultry industry, and the state's attorneys are already asking a judge to reprimand the companies for violating court rules and making other distortions during opening arguments last week.
It's an early sign that suggests the case, which accuses poultry giants like Tyson Foods Inc. and Cargill Inc., of polluting a northeastern Oklahoma watershed with bird waste, could be a long slog, as every detail is held up to scrutiny. Testimony is scheduled to begin Wednesday, and the case could last weeks.
The outcome is being monitored by other states thinking about challenging the way Big Poultry does business in other watersheds.
Oklahoma's complaint filed Monday in Tulsa federal court accuses the industry of suggesting in opening statements last week that Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson was suing the companies to benefit his own interests, not the state's.
The complaint also says the companies violated a pretrial order forbidding them from mentioning the result of a 2008 preliminary hearing — which found that Oklahoma lacked evidence to immediately stop the companies from spreading bird waste in the Illinois River watershed while the case went to trial.
Oklahoma is asking U.S. District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell to scold the 11 companies it is suing over the "objectionable statements," stating that while "parties are traditionally granted wide latitude in what may be said in opening statement, that latitude does not extend, however, to violating court rulings, misstating a court ruling and misrepresenting what the state has said in its opening statement."
Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson, said Tuesday the companies have complied with all the court's orders, and that Oklahoma's complaint "was filed in an effort to distract the court from the truth about this case."
"This case is really about a political tug-of-war with an attorney general at odds with state legislators and regulators over the regulation of poultry litter as a fertilizer," he said.
Oklahoma sued the industry in 2005, claiming the hundreds of thousands of tons of bird waste it spreads on fields on the Oklahoma-Arkansas border is one of the major causes of pollution in the 1 million-acre river valley.
For decades, farmers in northeastern Oklahoma have emptied litter from their chicken houses and spread the droppings on their fields as a cheap fertilizer to grow other crops.
The state argues runoff from the fields has polluted the Illinois River with harmful bacteria that threatens the health of the tens of thousands of people who raft and fish there each year.
The other defendants named in the lawsuit are Cal-Maine Foods, Inc.; Tyson Poultry Inc., Tyson Chicken Inc., Cobb-Vantress Inc., Cargill Turkey Production L.L.C., George's Inc., George's Farms Inc., Peterson Farms Inc. and Simmons Foods Inc.