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Poultry companies ask judge to throw out ruling in decades-old case over polluted Oklahoma river

Five rafts full of people are floating down a wide greenish-brown river. Thick green trees and brush come right up to the banks.
Oklahoma-Texas Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
The Illinois River

Tyson Foods and other Arkansas poultry companies have filed a motion to dismiss a court ruling that says they’re responsible for cleaning up pollution in Oklahoma’s Illinois River Watershed.

When Oklahoma filed this case against Tyson Foods and other poultry companies in 2005, Pluto was still a planet. Judge Gregory K. Frizzell heard arguments in court in 2010 — the same year Instagram launched and the film Inception befuddled theatergoers.

Frizzell’s ruling didn’t come until earlier this year, when he ordered the poultry companies to remediate the Illinois River Watershed at their own expense. Frizzell hasn’t publicly said what delayed his decision.

But he did write that water tainted with waste from chickens and turkeys upstream from Oklahoma was changing the river.

“As late as the 1960s, its waters were crystal clear,” Judge Gregory K. Frizzell wrote in his 219-page decision. “But that is no longer the case. The river is polluted with phosphorus.”

Found in agricultural runoff, phosphorus can cloud waters, harm fish and foster the growth of blue-green algae. Poultry waste is particularly rich in phosphorus.

“The Environmental Protection Agency has recognized that nutrient pollution caused by phosphorus is one of America’s most widespread, costly, and challenging environmental problems,” Frizzell wrote.

After months of back-and-forth over that clean-up plan, the poultry companies have filed a motion to dismiss the ruling. They say it’s based on evidence that’s no longer valid — pollution management practices and water quality in the Illinois River have changed since 2010.

The poultry companies’ beef lies mostly with Frizzell’s order not just to pay damages but to provide “injunctive relief.” This kind of court decision requires actions to remedy past problems and prevent future harm. The defendants wrote they’re “unaware of any court, in any jurisdiction, federal or state, ever awarding injunctive relief on a record so stale.”

The poultry companies also said Oklahoma’s actions since they filed the lawsuit don’t support the state’s claims of urgent environmental damage.

“For all that time[…] the State of Oklahoma has sat idly by,” the defendants wrote.

Oklahoma has until Nov. 10 to respond to the motion.

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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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