Processing Magazine

Testimony comes to halt in poultry litter case

October 7, 2009
According to the Associated Press, Oklahoma''s federal pollution trial against the Arkansas poultry industry ground to an unexpected halt, as attorneys for the companies challenged the credentials of one of the state''s expert witnesses. U.S. District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell, was angered that the state waited more than four years after the lawsuit was filed to specify what the witness would be testifying about. A scowling Frizzell halted testimony for at least ten minutes at one point while he addressed the attorneys at the bench. About eight or nine lawyers huddled around the judge engaging in what appeared to be a heated conversation. White noise was piped into the courtroom to muffle their voices. Shannon Phillips, the state''s water quality director, was to testify about potential sources of pollution in the Illinois River watershed, including poultry litter -- or the droppings, feathers and bedding -- farmers in northeastern Oklahoma have used for decades as a cheap fertilizer to grow other crops. The state argued that runoff from the fields contains harmful bacteria that threaten the health of the tens of thousands of people who raft and fish in the watershed each year. Industry attorneys spent hours trying to portray Phillips as a former "document custodian" who did most of her research on pollution in the watershed while she was still in college and was in over her head as an expert witness. Tom Green, an attorney for the world''s largest meat producer, Tyson Foods Inc., and two of its subsidiaries, argued that the 11 companies the state is suing did not know what subjects Phillips was going to talk about until the day she testified. He also asked Phillips a series of questions aimed at discrediting her as an expert witness, including asking her if she had degrees in surface water hydrology, geochemistry or agronomy. She said she did not. Green said he would concede that Phillips had the experience to detail what happens to water when there is an overloading of nutrients, but contended the point was redundant -- a conclusion Frizzell did not share. Robert Nance, an attorney for the state, said Phillips was not operating "on the cutting edge" of science, and that she had the experience and training to testify. But Frizzell sided with the poultry lawyers that Phillips lacked the qualifications to give an opinion on what was causing the pollution in the watershed. He allowed her to testify generally about the impact pollution had on bodies of water, ways to remediate the pollution and document historical and current pollution problems in the area.