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A Northeast Oklahoma grassroots group suing for more say on poultry farms will have its day in court

A creek with clear green water.
Oklahoma Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit
U.S. Geological Survey

A grassroots group representing residents of the Spring Creek Watershed in Northeast Oklahoma has sued the state for more public input on new poultry megafarms. Although the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry (ODAFF) said the group lacked the standing to sue, a judge ruled that the case should be heard in court.

After its waters bubble up from the ground, Spring Creek flows across the Cherokee Nation Reservation and through three counties before flowing into Fort Gibson Lake. On that 35-mile journey, the creek passes by dozens of poultry farms.

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board says the growing poultry industry in that area has worsened water quality. When poultry waste pollutes waterways, it can cause cloudy water, slime and toxic algal blooms.

Oklahoma’s most infamous case of poultry litter pollution is in the Illinois River, about 30 miles south of Spring Creek. Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled that poultry farms in Arkansas are responsible for addressing pollution in the Illinois River Watershed. But not all poultry pollution crosses state lines—according to The Poultry Federation, nearly 200 million broiler chickens were raised in Oklahoma in 2021.

The Spring Creek Coalition is a non-profit that describes its members as landowners, residents and supporters of the Spring Creek Watershed. In March 2021, the Coalition filed a lawsuit against the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, alleging that ODAFF issues licenses to poultry facilities without alerting residents or gathering information on the potential impacts to public health or the environment.

The lawsuit’s primary complaint is that ODAFF does not provide opportunities for public input on these poultry facilities, which the Spring Creek Coalition says is a violation of due process. It focuses on a 2018 permit for a Simmons Foods poultry facility, which has 6 poultry houses with the combined capacity to raise 1 million birds every year. According to the Cherokee Nation’s map of poultry operations (embedded below), this is one of 35 facilities in the Spring Creek Watershed.

In its response to the suit, ODAFF acknowledged it provides no notice to surrounding residents before approving new poultry facilities, including the Simmons Foods poultry facility mentioned in court filings. But the agency said the Spring Creek Coalition lacked the standing to bring this issue to court on behalf of individual landowners.

Last week, a district court judge ruled that this suit should be heard in court. The attorney representing the Spring Creek Coalition told the Tulsa World that they are working to set a date for the hearing.

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Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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