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Judge rules Oklahoma Ag Department ignored poultry farm impacts

A line of chicken houses at a broiler farm in Adair County.
Kelly J Bostian
A line of chicken houses at a broiler farm in Adair County.

A Delaware County District Court judge ruled that the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry irresponsibly allowed large poultry farms to be built in a sensitive watershed without proper environmental review or advance public notice.

Tulsa-based Indian Environmental Law Group representing Spring Creek Coalition, a group of landowners along one of the state’s last “pristine” category Ozark streams, sued the agency over those very points after it allowed several “mega-farms” to be built within the watershed starting in 2018.

According to Delaware County District Judge Dave Crutchfield, the Ag Department ignored its duty to protect clean water. Also, it failed to offer due process protection to Spring Creek watershed landowners.

“There is no evidence the Department gave any consideration to the significance of the potential impact the facilities, each containing upwards of 300,000 chickens, may have on the public environment or the peace and enjoyment of property owned by contiguous landowners,” the judge wrote.

Participants expect an appeal of the partial summary judgment, but if it holds, the ruling would upend past official interpretations of the Oklahoma Poultry Feeding Operations Act.

Agriculture Department officials declined to comment, citing policy regarding ongoing litigation.

Environmental Law Group attorney Matthew Alison said, “It’s a win. It’s absolutely a win.”

He said the judge’s determination that the Ag Department is responsible for thorough environmental review breaks new ground and should be a relief for Spring Creek residents and others statewide.

He said the “buck-passing” of environmental concerns from agriculture to the Department of Environmental Quality to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board is a large part of what led the frustrated landowners to file suit.

“Over the last six, seven years, the Ag Department said, ‘We don’t have jurisdiction over those issues, so we’re not doing it.’ Now we know they didn’t do it, but they were required to.”

Alison said he expects an appeal and more months in the courts.

“For as much as we are pleased and relieved and grateful for the judge taking the time to consider this order and render it, we’re also cognizant that it’s been six or seven years without any administrative oversight of these issues, which have been important since day one.”

Spring Creek Coalition President Bill Chambers said the group first sought a lawyer in 2019 after months of frustration and buck-passing between agencies. The group obtained grants to continue scientific water sampling in the creek, which shows increasing degradation and growing phosphorous concentrations.

“We’re not against farming or poultry production; we just ask it to be done with consideration for the environment, especially in a fragile ecosystem,” Chambers said.

Alison said the second big win was the judge’s order telling the parties to come together on a public notice and a protest process for the court’s review.

“I’m sure we can squabble and quibble about where and how that will happen, but the big takeaway, to me, is he said it has to happen,” Alison said.

The judge also agreed that the state’s classification of the large poultry houses as Poultry Feeding Operations has been in error. The state has argued that solid-waste management systems require less oversight than liquid-based operations at Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), like hog confinements, where a sewage lagoon is involved.

Federal law requires states to issue public notice and perform closer environmental oversight on CAFO operations, but Oklahoma’s Poultry Feeding Act allowed another classification, the Poultry Feeding Operation.

Crutchfield compared state statutes and acknowledged the differences but reasoned that the large poultry operations fit the mold of a CAFO, liquid waste or not.

He cited decades of litigation over “the cumulative effects of poorly regulated poultry operations in Northeast Oklahoma,” citing the State of Oklahoma vs. Tyson Foods case, filed in 2005 and set to be ruled upon later this month in the U.S. District Court for Northern Oklahoma.

He used a familiar quote to make his point. “The potential for pollution arising out of the confined feeding of hundreds of thousands of chickens should be ‘intuitively obvious to the most casual observer,’” he wrote.

“If the Department properly classifies these PFO permits, it will provide substantial procedural due process to the Plaintiff and the public, just as it does to other parties who are affected by the CAFO permit process,” he wrote.

The Oklahoma Ecology Project is a nonprofit dedicated to in-depth reporting on Oklahoma’s conservation and environmental issues. Learn more at okecology.org

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