OKLAHOMA CITY — Don’t get Marla Peek started.
The regulatory affairs director for the Oklahoma Farm Bureau cannot believe anyone would consider animal waste, the most natural of fertilizers, an environmentally hazardous material.
“We flat out do not agree with that,” she said. “We think it’s flat out ridiculous.”
The animal waste issue has lingered for several years, and it appears that will continue. A lawsuit filed by Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson against 14 poultry producers enters its second year, the Oklahoma Legislature this spring considered a bill that declared manure is not a hazardous material and Congress is preparing do the same.
House Resolution 4341, authored by U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, D-Texas, would say animal waste is not a hazardous material and would amend the environmental Superfund law to exclude agricultural waste.
Meanwhile, Edmondson said the federal lawsuit remains in its discovery, or fact-finding, stage and has a tentative trial date in early 2008.
“It will not be resolved soon,” he said, “which means we’ll probably have legislative battles next year and continue the PR war with the poultry companies.”
Edmondson claims in the lawsuit that excess chicken litter is polluting the Illinois River watershed, killing its wildlife and forcing city governments to spend more money to treat it.
The attorney general actually agrees with Peek to a point, saying animal waste, in itself, is not a hazard. He says the problem comes when millions of chickens in concentrated animal feeding operations produce too much waste for the land to handle.
A single poultry house can hold up to 25,000 birds in close quarters, and the number can turn over four or five times a year.
“A typical poultry farm will have at least three houses and up to 20,” Edmondson said, “so we’re talking about literally millions of birds on a single piece of ground and the waste of those birds, historically, has been spread on the land as fertilizer.”
He said the fertilizer is excellent, “but plants only need so much nitrogen and phosphorus. Once you put down all that the plants need and continue to surface-apply it, the plants can’t use it, it washes off into the stream, it fertilizes the water and increases the algae bloom in the water.”
The algae consumes oxygen in streams and lakes, he added, which “kills wildlife, it makes the water smell, it makes municipalities spend more on water treatment and increases the levels of chlorine necessary to treat the water.”
He filed the lawsuit in federal court because more than 2,300 of the chicken farms in the watershed area are in Arkansas. About 500 are in Oklahoma.
Janet Wilkerson, a spokesperson for Peterson Farms in Decatur, Ark., one of the lawsuit’s defendants, questions the basis of that conclusion. She said no state or federal regulatory agency asked the attorney general to file suit.
“None of the poultry companies of the farmers who raise chickens and turkeys in Oklahoma or Arkansas have been accused by environmental regulators of pollution in the application of poultry litter as organic fertilizer,” she said. “No laws have been broken.”
The attorney general contends the poultry companies, by polluting the watershed and Lake Tenkiller with their chickens’ excess waste, are in violation of federal regulations under the Superfund law. It’s the language U.S. Rep. Hall hopes to change with his bill.
Another sticking point is the vast soil testing Edmondson wants conducted on numerous chicken farms to gain more data for the lawsuit. Many are fighting it, calling it an intrusion on their property rights and privacy; the attorney general says it’s permissible as a condition for farms to receive their permits.
The companies named in the suit include Tyson Foods, Peterson Farms, Simmons Foods, Cargill, Cal-Maine Foods, George’s, Aviagen, Cobb-Vantress, Willow Brook Foods and some of their subsidiary companies.
Both sides say they would welcome a settlement, though Wilkerson said there have been no settlement negotiations since August.
Any new laws or court verdict will affect thousands of Oklahoma residents. Wilkerson said about 12,000 Oklahomans work directly or indirectly with the poultry industry.
Statistics from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry say the state produced just short of 250 million chickens raised for meat between Dec. 1, 2004, and Nov. 30, 2005, up from nearly 244 million the previous year.
The broilers' production value was $556.3 million last year, compared with $547 million in 2004.
Wilburt Hundl Jr., director of the department’s statistical data, said those figures don’t include chickens raised for egg production. Most chicken operations in Oklahoma are in the eastern part of the state, but they are part of the state’s significant stake in livestock.
Peek of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau said the state normally ranks among the top 10 in poultry and swine production and the top five in cattle.
“We’re a cattle state; we’re huge in cattle,” she said. “This is not just a poultry issue, it’s a manure issue.”
Department of Agriculture figures show the state had 5.45 million head of cattle in 2005, compared with the human population of about 3.5 million. The number of hogs in Oklahoma ranges between 2.3 million and 2.5 million.
Peek said if regulations on animal waste become more stringent, “you would have to change the entire scheme of how the livestock industry does its business if it was declared hazardous waste.”
And that would be unnecessary, she said, because of federal regulations like the Clean Water Act. In addition, Oklahoma has pioneered laws regarding manure and the environment.
“We were one of the first states in the nation to have nutrient management standards prescribed in state laws, and our state regulations exceed federal standards,” Peek said.
But Edmondson doesn’t believe beef, pork and smaller poultry producers pose many problems because most of them adhere to state regulations. He shook his head while saying the legal action is not about them.
A concentrated animal feeding operation for hogs must have holding ponds with proper lining for manure, and some can be applied as fertilizer. Cattle typically graze in more open areas, but feed lots for cattle and the waste they generate are also regulated.
Farmers who violate the regulations are fined.
Poultry operations are also regulated, Edmondson said, but the larger CAFOs have the most violations.
“The permits, the law and the regulations all state that in no event shall their application result in runoff to the waters, and that is what’s being violated,” he said. “It's every day, but it’s not intentional. The farmers aren’t taking this stuff down and dumping it in the creek; they are surface-applying it to the land and it’s running off because the land can only take so much.”
When asked how the state is cracking down on the large poultry operations, Edmondson said, “We’re suing them, aren’t we?”
Josh Payne, a poultry waste expert with the Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension, said each poultry feeding operation, regardless of its size, must follow nutrient management guidelines established in the state’s animal waste management or pollution prevention plan.
“These guidelines only allow litter use as a beneficial fertilizer to pasture or cropland, not as a disposal system,” Payne said. “If poultry waste or litter cannot be used according to nutrient management guidelines on the premises, the producer must see that it is removed to a location where it can be used properly.”
That would involve trucking, disposal and other costs that could be expensive for farmers. Payne said composting litter and sending it to other parts of the state that need it would be great, except “high transportation costs somewhat impede the process.”
Edmondson said cost is a big reason why he thinks poultry companies in his lawsuit should pay for moving the hundreds of thousands of tons of stored waste, and not the farmers who raise chickens for them but typically own the litter.
“The wheat farmers in western Oklahoma would love to get this, but there is a dollar cost to the transportation,” the attorney general said. “Farmers cannot afford to truck it out to Ellis County, Oklahoma, and sell it to wheat farmers. The corporations created the problem; the corporations need to deal with it."
In a similar case that reached settlement in 2003, Tyson Foods, Peterson’s Farms, Cargill, George’s and Simmons agreed to pay the city of Tulsa $7.5 million and to ship their chickens’ excess waste away from Lakes Eucha and Spavinaw, the city’s main water sources.
Despite the Tulsa decision and the position of Edmondson, the Sierra Club and others who say excess waste poses a hazard, doubts over environmental concerns with standards already in place and worries about the suit’s economic impact remain.
“If it’s an imminent threat, why aren’t people getting sick and going to hospitals?” Peek asked. “I don’t see it, but I think it’s a huge, huge threat for the industry.”
Wilkerson said poultry companies already ship litter, with help from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grants, and would be open to doing more. Having been raised on a chicken farm, Wilkerson said farmers and agricultural companies have more at personal stake in caring for the environment than most people.
On the other hand, she worries that a huge settlement in Edmondson’s favor, “could bankrupt some companies and bankrupt some farmers.”
James S. Tyree is CNHI News Service Oklahoma reporter.
OKLAHOMA CITY — Don’t get Marla Peek started.