Poultry Companies Balk at Oklahoma AG’s Settlement in Lawsuit

June 11, 2009

A now-defunct poultry company got a better deal in settling an environmental lawsuit with the state because it was first to negotiate an agreement, Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson has suggested.

But one poultry company spokesman says other firms have been involved in confidential settlement talks with Edmondson’s office “for as long, if not longer, than” the smaller company, Springfield, Mo.-based Willow Brook Foods Inc.

“There is a time-honored premium for being early to the settlement table,” Edmondson said.

Willow Brook was initially one of the 13 companies named in Oklahoma’s 2005 environmental lawsuit alleging that the over-application of poultry litter is polluting the Illinois River watershed.

The company recently proposed to pay $120,000 to settle, an agreement which has been challenged by the 12 other poultry companies. They want Edmondson to explain how the monetary figure was arrived at and who will decide how any money paid in the settlement would be spent.

Edmondson would not reveal how much the premium was, but said he was surprised at the reaction to the settlement by the other poultry companies.

“I perhaps shouldn’t have been, but I was,” he said.

He said the agreement with Willow Brook was based on several factors, including the company’s smaller footprint in the watershed and because it operated only eight of the 1,800 poultry houses estimated to be in the watershed.

Willow Brook changed its name to Cold Zone Inc. last year and no longer is in the poultry business in Oklahoma.

Edmondson said he hoped the agreement prompted other companies named in the lawsuit to “see this as an opportunity to settle the case.”

Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson Foods Inc., one of the companies named in the suit, said that unlike Willow Brook, “we’re not prepared to discontinue our contracts with family farmers who raise chickens in the watershed, especially when these farmers are operating lawfully.”

“Not surprisingly, the attorney general has still failed to provide any basis for his proposed settlement with Willow Brook nor has he said whether the same formula would be used in discussions with the other companies,” Mickelson said in a statement.

Oklahoma sued the 13 companies in 2005, claiming that bacteria from the over-application of poultry litter in the 1-million-acre watershed leeches into the groundwater, springs and wells.

The Oklahoma-Arkansas region supplies roughly 2 percent of the nation’s poultry, and is one of several areas nationally where the industry is most concentrated.

A trial is set for September 21.

Companies named in the lawsuit include Tyson, Tyson Poultry Inc., Tyson Chicken Inc., Cobb-Vantress Inc., Cal-Maine Foods Inc., Cargill Inc., Cargill Turkey Production L.L.C., George’s Inc., George’s Farms Inc., Peterson Farms Inc., Simmons Foods Inc. and Cal-Maine Farms Inc.

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