A federal judge in Oklahoma ruled Aug. 14 that poultry litter could be classified as a solid waste under federal environmental laws when applied in excessive amounts on farmland.
The decision was a partial victory for the state of Oklahoma in its environmental lawsuit against 12 Arkansas poultry companies. Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson claims excessive application of chicken waste has resulted in runoff polluting the Illinois River watershed.
The case has drawn national attention because it could lead to similar lawsuits across the country challenging how the industry does business. A trial is set for Sept. 21.
On Aug. 13, attorneys for the poultry companies argued the litter should not be labeled solid waste because it has a beneficial use as a fertilizer and a market value. The state argued that litter was “patently” solid waste.
“I reject both approaches,” U.S. District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell said, before coming up with the compromise ruling. “It’s very gray.”
Frizzell said excessive application of the litter made it a solid waste.
The state won another victory when the judge upheld an agreement between it and Springfield, Mo.-based Willow Brook Foods Inc., requiring the company to pay $120,000 to settle its portion of the case. The now-defunct company was originally the 13th defendant named in Edmondson’s lawsuit.
Attorneys for both sides argued more pretrial motions, including which evidence could be admitted.
The state also asked Frizzell to reconsider an earlier ruling barring Oklahoma from winning monetary damages because it failed to include the Cherokee Nation – whose lands lie within the watershed – as a plaintiff. The state had sought more than $611 million.
Frizzell took the request under advisement and made no indication when he would rule on that request.
In the hearing, Frizzell ruled an economist who claims the poultry industry knew for years about the environmental harm chicken waste was causing would be allowed to testify.
The 1 million-acre watershed spans parts of Oklahoma and Arkansas and has 1,800 poultry houses, which produce an estimated 345,000 tons of chicken waste each year.
The companies in the lawsuit are Tyson Foods Inc., Tyson Poultry Inc., and Tyson Chicken Inc., Cobb-Vantress Inc., Cal-Maine Foods Inc., Cal-Maine Farms Inc., Cargill Inc., Cargill Turkey Production LLC, George’s Inc. George’s Farms Inc. Peterson Farms Inc. and Simmons Foods Inc.
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