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Oklahoma Inter-Tribal Council joins opposition to bill shielding poultry farms from pollution lawsuits

Spring Creek in Northeastern Oklahoma
Graycen Wheeler
Spring Creek in Northeastern Oklahoma

Leaders from Oklahoma’s Five Tribes are asking the state legislature not to move forward with a bill that would shield some poultry farmers from lawsuits, even if they pollute streams, rivers or lakes.

Poultry farms house lots of birds, and those birds make lots of poop. That poop contains nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, which plants and bacteria crave. If those nutrients get into a stream or lake, they can encourage algae and bacteria to grow. This can make the water cloudy or slimy, and it can kill off fish and other creatures who were living there.

Because of this, farmers and ranchers must follow state-approved nutrient management plans. These plans tell them how much poop they can spread on their land as fertilizer. They also direct when and where exactly that poop can be applied.

Historically, Oklahoma has struggled with water pollution from poultry operations. Under current law, people affected by pollution could sue the poultry operation it came from.

But Rep. David Hardin’s House Bill 4118 would change the law that holds poultry farms responsible for water pollution. As long as a poultry operator is following a state-approved nutrient management plan, they would be protected from pollution lawsuits. Affected parties would instead need to sue the state.

When the House of Representatives considered the bill last month, Democrats argued it would strip the state of its regulatory teeth and remove incentives for poultry operators not to pollute.

“Sounds like we're rolling back some of the work that's been done over the years to protect the water,” said Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa.

But Hardin said the measure aims to protect poultry producers who are just following the rules the state set for them.

“The problem is we have poultry growers out there who are[...] in compliance with an approved nutrient management plan and are still ending up in lawsuits,” Hardin, R-Stillwell, told his colleagues. “We give the rules to these people. They follow the rules and they're still getting sued.”

The bill would have the state assume liability for pollution from poultry facilities, as long as the facility is adhering to a state-approved nutrient management plan.

But Rep. Meloyde Blancette, D-Tulsa, said the state Department of Agriculture is already having trouble keeping up with nutrient management plans.

“There's been this massive, unchecked proliferation of large industrial chicken farms in one concentrated area, but they've not had the resources to make sure that those growers are doing what's right relative to nutrient management,” she said. “Why would we put trust in an agency that's done a really poor job leading us up to this point anyway?”

After nearly an hour of questions and debate, the House of Representatives voted 68-28 to approve the bill. It still needs approval from the Senate and the Governor.

On Mar. 19, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. released a statement saying he “strongly opposes” Hardin’s bill.

“Our commitment to preserving our land and water is unwavering,” Hoskin wrote. “This bill undermines our efforts to preserve these precious resources for future generations.”

Hoskin said the Cherokee Nation supports farmers and producers, but this bill fails to reach a “balance between agricultural interests and the urgent need for environmental protection.”

Later that day, the Inter-Tribal Council of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee and Seminole Nations released a joint statement condemning the bill.

“We are united in opposition to a bill that threatens to undermine safe drinking water and healthy environments across our Reservations,” wrote tribal leaders.

The statement, signed by leaders of all five Nations, asks the Oklahoma Senate not to approve the bill.

Last year, Hardin authored another bill to shield poultry operations and other corporations from legal hurdles. House Bill 2053 instructs courts to throw out lawsuits protesting water use permits if the complaints are “based solely on the industry or entity applying to use the water.” If a court finds the suit to be “frivolous,” it can levy fines against the complainant.

That bill also met pushback but was ultimately signed into law.

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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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