OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Judge: Fix litter problem

It took almost 13 years for a federal court to finally rule that our state's poultry growers have been contributing significantly to the pollution of eastern Oklahoma's Illinois River watershed by regularly spreading poultry litter as fertilizer across its pastures.

The effects of this phosphorous contamination have altered the once crystal-clear stream into a murky flow tinged with green algae and a greatly reduced fish population.

As a result of allowing contract poultry growers to continue to spread the litter as fertilizer, 11 Arkansas poultry companies named as defendants violated trespassing and public nuisance-related laws in Oklahoma, U.S. District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell concluded in his 214-page ruling. The trial concluded in 2009.

Before writing on, I should say I've never seen this case (which was actually filed almost 18 years ago by Oklahoma's attorney general) as a winner-or-loser battle between two state, but a matter of right versus wrong.

As with our desire to protect the magnificent Buffalo National River from hog waste fertilizer and its destructive effects on water quality, the Illinois that feeds 13,000-acre Lake Tenkiller and provides water supply for many Oklahomans deserves the same protection.

Veteran journalist Doug Thompson wrote about the judge's ruling last week, explaining that the poultry companies involved, including Tyson and Cargill, now must convene to decide how to finally resolve this complex problem.

Oklahoma and Arkansas have been conducting public meetings on the river's management plan, the latest one scheduled for this past week in West Siloam Springs.

Although efforts at removing litter from the watershed and curtailing other sources have led to a steady drop in levels of phosphorus over the years, Thompson reported, progress has stalled largely because of soil erosion, according to Tate Wentz, water quality section manager for the Arkansas Natural Resources Division, in one of those meetings in October.

"Expert witnesses testified at trial that 20 percent of the fish species in the river had died off in recent years," Thompson wrote, "while the number of fish belonging to carnivorous species had been reduced by 70 percent because of changes in the river, the ruling summarizes.

"The ruling also notes Arkansas poultry companies made efforts to reduce phosphorus runoff, but it said those mitigation steps did not change the court's conclusion. Significant damage was done and continues to be done, it says."

So now, the companies should either come up with a workable plan by March 17 to end this damage being created by some 1,900 poultry houses in the watershed, or rest assured the judge will.

"Poultry companies," Thompson reported, "also give no effective oversight of their contract growers' disposal of litter, the court ruled. 'Historically, defendants have done little--if anything--to provide for or ensure appropriate handling or management of the poultry waste generated by their birds at their growers' houses,' the ruling says. 'The evidence adduced at trial establishes that none of the defendants took any steps to do so.'

"The Arkansas Legislature passed the Arkansas Soil Nutrient Application and Poultry Litter Utilization Act in 2003. However, as amended in 2005, the act didn't take full effect until after Jan. 1, 2007.

"'Thus, it was not until Jan. 2, 2007, that poultry growers were required by Arkansas law to comply with nutrient management plans," [the] ruling says. Enforcement of those plans is left to the state with little or no effort by poultry companies to ensure their growers comply.'"

Phosphorus makes poultry litter such a threat to the Illinois River because it feeds algae, and algae destroy water clarity and drain dissolved oxygen from water. That, in turn, kills life in any stream.

Arkansans learned a lot about its negative effects on fresh water from waste spread within watersheds during the lengthy struggle to finally close a hog factory our state's Department of Environmental Quality wrongheadedly permitted into the sacred Buffalo National River's watershed several years back.

The state finally resolved that blunder after years of controversy by finally buying out the factory owners for a price that left them financially whole.

The Illinois River and its tributaries begin in Benton and Washington counties and flow 145 miles, along pasturelands passing through northeast Oklahoma before entering the Arkansas River. The Oklahoma Legislature designated the Illinois as a scenic river in 1977.

As the litter problem has continued unabated in that stream's waters over the decades, rapidly growing cities in northwest Arkansas actually have done admirable jobs in reducing pollutant levels from their waste treatment plants that discharge into the watershed. Phosphorus in the river from such these so-called "point sources" amounts to less than 20 percent of the phosphorus released, the judge noted. Springdale averaged 8.4 milligrams of phosphorus per liter of water it released in 2001, and is down to less than 0.1 per liter now, according to the utility. Other sewage plants in Arkansas and Oklahoma releasing treated wastewater report similar improvements.

So now we will wait until mid-March or so when it appears things are going to change one way or the other.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.