StateImpact: Chicken Pollution? Poultry Farms and the Illinois River
Former State Attorney General Drew Edmondson filed a lawsuit against the Arkansas poultry industry in 2005. His claim: Chicken waste was polluting the Illinois River with phosphorous. Arguments ended in 2009. Since then: nothing. The judge still hasn’t ruled. StateImpact’s Logan Layden visits Tahlequah to see the state of the river today, and if the pollution persists.
Two years ago Layden visited an eastern Oklahoma spinach farm standing next to a pick-up truck-sized pile of chicken manure for a story about wacky tax credits. As it turns out, the tax break wasn’t so wacky after all. Bascially, the state was paying farmers away from the Illinois River Basin to truck chicken litter to their farms. It’s one of the many ways the state has tried to address this issue.
“You bet we’re frustrated. There’s been one study after another of pollution in this watershed. And yet the studies are still going on,” says Ed Brocksmith, who co-founded the group Save the Illinois River. ”We’re frustrated because Oklahoma had a viable phosphorous limit for state scenic rivers, yet the state has turned around and put that limit in jeopardy by allowing this new study.”
The new study Brocksmith is talking about is a partnership between Oklahoma and Arkansas to determine whether phosphorous pollution goals established in 2002 are viable. But Ed Fite, administrator of the state Scenic Rivers Commission, traces the history of the pollution much further back— and beyond chicken farms.
“The headwaters of the Illinois River Basin is where Wal-Mart is located. It’s where the major poultry industry is located,” Fite says. ”It’s where J.B. Hunt Trucking and some other large industries have set up shop. There were less than 200-thousand people in the basin in the 70s.”
Today it’s grown to more than 600-thousand.
And Fite says that rapid growth is hard on the river ”When folks really started realizing that the Illinois River wasn’t as pristine as it was was in the early 80s. There was abundant algae growth — had all these nuisance types of algaes that were occurring. And it was evident that something was going wrong.”
Oklahoma has been pushing to limit phosphorous pollution ever since, including an attempt that led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1992 over discharges from Fayetteville’s water treatment plant. But the state’s chronic courtroom disappointments haven’t kept progress from being made.
At the bank of the Illinois River near Tahlequah, Brocksmith describes the algae blooms when they were at their worst.
“The rocks were actually green and slimy. And there was a particular type of algae that locals all ‘horse snot algae’ that was long strands,” Brocksmith says. And now, especially after a heavy rain, “The rocks in the river are sparkling bright, and white, and the river is just crystal clear.”
Oklahoma might not have won its Supreme Court fight with Fayetteville, but that city, and growing communities across the watershed updated their water systems anyway. And Fite says poultry companies are feeling the pressure, too, thanks to the 2005 suit.
“The poultry industry — since that lawsuit — has been moving out about 80-percent of the poultry waste plus out of the basin,” Fite says.
Fite says there may never be a ruling on the 2005 lawsuit, especially if Arkansas and Oklahoma can finally work out a phosphorous pollution limit on their own. Until then, he hopes the poultry companies’ apparent good faith efforts continue.
StateImpact is a collaboration of NPR member stations in Oklahoma. Find more at stateimpact.npr.org.