TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Showing photographs of poultry litter piled high near barns and river banks, Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson accused the Arkansas poultry industry Thursday of knowing for decades that excessive application of bird waste on farmland was polluting the Illinois River watershed.
"They have been aware of these problems and the evidence pointing in their direction for years," said Edmondson, who presented part of the state's opening statement in its pollution lawsuit against 11 poultry companies.
The state finished its statement before the judge took an afternoon break. The poultry companies will have four hours later Thursday afternoon to present their opening remarks in the long-anticipated trial, which is expected to span several weeks.
Oklahoma sued the industry in 2005, claiming the hundreds of thousands of tons of bird waste it spreads on fields in the watershed is one of the major causes of pollution in the 1 million-acre river valley. The case is being closely studied by other states thinking about challenging the way Big Poultry does business.
On Thursday, attorneys and executives from poultry companies including Tyson Foods and Cargill packed a Tulsa federal courtroom. There were at least a dozen lawyers representing each side.
To illustrate the harm caused by massive amounts of poultry litter in the river valley, state attorney David Page set two glass jars filled with dark brown waste on a table before the judge.
"What's in this waste?" he asked, then ticked off its contents: phosphorus, nitrogen, arsenic, estrogen, antibiotics and harmful pathogens.
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.
In a six-year period, Page claimed, nearly 942 million birds were raised in the watershed, which spans portions of Oklahoma and Arkansas. Those birds produced an estimated 2.7 million tons of waste in that time, the state alleges.
The state showed several slides of uncovered mounds of litter sitting in the middle of farm fields, in front of barns and in uncovered trucks.
The industry argues that Arkansas and Oklahoma have sanctioned the practice of spreading chicken waste on farmland by issuing farmers permits to do it.
But Edmondson has said the industry took the easy and cheap way out when it came to properly disposing of the waste, rather than burning it as energy, processing it into pellets or composting it.
He also accused the companies Thursday of placing the burden of handling the waste on the farmers who raise birds.
"The Illinois River watershed is a huge asset to the state of Oklahoma and to the nation," Edmondson told U.S. District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell, who is hearing the case from the bench. "We have the legal tools at our disposal to fix it.
"This precious asset belongs to our children and grandchildren. It belongs to the future," he told the judge.
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.