Oklahoma is requesting a preliminary injunction to stop poultry companies from dropping animal waste in the 1 million-acre watershed. State Attorney General Drew Edmondson maintains that unless the court grants the request by the spring, the fecal bacteria found in the waste could pose a health threat to hundreds of people who visit the river valley each year.
Edmondson told a federal judge Tuesday that waste from the birds is measured in tons and is not processed, treated or diluted but dumped on the land "ostensibly as fertilizer but far in excess of agronomic needs, in the most environmentally and ecologically sensitive watershed in Oklahoma."
The hearing on the injunction is expected to last several days and is part of an Oklahoma lawsuit that accuses Arkansas-based poultry companies of polluting the watershed with chicken litter.
"Our evidence will show that these persistent and pervasive violations of state and federal law have infested the rivers and springs and wells of the Illinois River Watershed with biological pathogens that have created an imminent and substantial threat to human health," Edmondson said.
Patrick Ryan, an attorney for Tyson Foods, Inc., responded that the injunction seeks to disrupt an industry that has operated successfully in the watershed for decades. He also accused the state of creating the science to suit its case.
"There is nothing more going on in this watershed than the rest of the state," Ryan said.
More than 576,000 acres of the watershed are located in Oklahoma.
State and environmental officials contend that years of illegal spreading of the poultry waste, which contains bacteria, antibiotics, growth hormones and harmful metals, is killing Oklahoma's scenic lakes.
Edmondson sued the poultry companies in 2005, saying litter pollution rendered Lake Tenkiller in northeastern Oklahoma 70 percent oxygen dead and accused poultry companies of treating Oklahoma's rivers like open sewers.
He also said the amount of phosphorous dumped on the ground in the watershed each year is equivalent to the waste of 10.7 million people.
Named in the 2005 complaint are Tyson Foods Inc., Tyson Poultry Inc., Tyson Chicken Inc., Cobb-Vantress Inc., Aviagen 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.