TULSA, Okla. (AP) — An Oklahoma official testified Thursday that he talked with the poultry industry more than a decade ago about ways to move chicken waste out of the Illinois River watershed.
"I tried to keep an open line," to the industry, said Ed Fite, director of Oklahoma's Scenic Rivers Commission. "I've had many conversations with multiple companies."
Oklahoma is suing 11 Arkansas poultry companies, claiming in its 2005 lawsuit that tons of bird waste spread on fields on the Oklahoma-Arkansas border have polluted the Illinois River watershed. The industry says it has acted responsibly and within the law in the way it handles the waste.
Fite said he once suggested adding a half-cent or cent to the cost of each bird to create a fund for dealing with the waste. Many of the conversations he had with industry representatives came when he was on former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating's task force on animal waste in 1997, he testified.
Fite's comments came near the end of the second day of testimony. He will retake the stand when the federal trial resumes Monday.
The outcome of the case is being monitored by other states thinking about challenging the way the industry does business.
Earlier Thursday, poultry industry attorneys argued that cattle operations, discharge from wastewater treatment plants and excessive use of commercial fertilizer could all be contributing to the pollution problem in the river valley.
The claim came as the attorneys cross-examined Oklahoma's former environmental secretary Miles Tolbert, who was the first witness the state called a day earlier. Under questioning, Tolbert acknowledged that since Oklahoma is less restrictive than Arkansas in regulating runoff from commercial fertilizer in the 1-million-acre watershed it is harder to maintain water quality.
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 defendants named in the lawsuit are Tyson Foods Inc., Cargill Inc., 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.