Processing Magazine

Poultry waste dumped in river poses health danger

December 15, 2008

The Associated Press reports that Oklahoma’s Attorney General says that dangers to human health are "still very real" in the Illinois River watershed because 13 Arkansas-based poultry companies continue to dispose of their bird waste in the river valley. But a poultry industry spokeswoman says bacteria levels in the 1 million-acre watershed are no greater than they are in the state''s other rivers and streams where poultry waste isn''t applied. In September, a federal judge denied Oklahoma''s request for a preliminary injunction that would have prevented the poultry companies from dumping the bird waste in the watershed. U.S. District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell wrote then that Oklahoma "has not yet met its burden of proving that bacteria in the waters of the IRW are caused by the application of poultry litter rather than by other sources, including cattle manure and human septic systems." Oklahoma is planning to appeal the ruling to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Edmondson sued the companies in 2005, accusing them of treating Oklahoma''s rivers like open sewers. Companies named in the 2005 complaint include Tyson Foods Inc., 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., Cal-Maine Farms Inc. and Willow Brook Foods Inc. While gathering evidence for the pollution case, which figures to go to trial later in 2009, Edmondson said the state "discovered the excessive land application of poultry waste could be a danger to public health," and argued in court for the injunction earlier this year. Edmondson had requested an injunction by this year''s spring rains, arguing that bacteria found the waste could pose a health threat to the 155,000 people who recreate in the river valley annually. The injunction could have halted a practice thousands of farmers employed for decades in the watershed, which occupies parts of Arkansas and Oklahoma: Taking the ammonia-reeking chicken waste -- clumped bird droppings, bedding and feathers -- and spreading it on their land as cheap fertilizer. It also could have led to similar environmental lawsuits nationwide against the industry, which produced more than 48 billion pounds of chicken in 2006. 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. More than 1,800 poultry houses are in the watershed, most of them in Arkansas.