The world's largest poultry producer, Tyson Foods, is among nearly a dozen poultry companies that have less than two months to reach agreement with the state of Oklahoma on how to clean a watershed polluted by chicken litter.
U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell in Tulsa ruled Wednesday that Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, Minnesota-based Cargill Inc. and other companies polluted the Illinois River, caused a public nuisance and trespassed by spreading the litter, or manure, on land in eastern Oklahoma, and that it then leached into the river's watershed.
The companies and the state have until March 17 to present an agreement on how to remedy the pollution's effects, which includes low oxygen levels in the river, algae growth and damage to the fish population.
That time frame is enough to reach such a deal, according to former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who filed the lawsuit in the case in 2005.
"Whether (poultry companies) ultimately agree to a meaningful solution, I don't know," Edmondson said.
"They don't have much wiggle room" to make demands in an agreement, he added, but "I don't know if they know that yet."
Edmondson noted that if no agreement is reached, the court will render a judgment on the remedies according to Frizzell's ruling.
Cargill spokesperson Daniel Sullivan said in an email Thursday that the company has a record of "proactively taking action to protect the environment," but he did not say what the next step would be.
"We have received the ruling related to the ... case in Oklahoma and are reviewing it. We remain dedicated to conducting business in a responsible and sustainable manner," it read.
A spokesperson for Tyson did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Thursday. The company told the Tulsa World on Wednesday that it was reviewing the ruling.
The lawsuit targeted 11 companies. Trial ended in 2009, with no ruling from Frizzell for more than 13 years.
The judge ultimately rejected the companies' arguments, including that the state ignored other pollution sources such as wastewater treatment plants and waste from cattle operations.
Frizzell wrote that an estimated 354,000 to 528,000 tons of chicken litter was spread on the land each year by the companies.
"The court finds, therefore, that while other sources contribute to phosphorus loading of the (watershed), poultry waste is the principal contributor of the phosphorus causing injuries to the waters," Frizzell wrote.
The ruling said the Illinois River's once "crystal clear" waters are now cloudy as a result.
Current state Attorney General Gentner Drummond called the ruling "great and historic" for Oklahoma.
"We will thoroughly review the judge's decision and determine the appropriate path forward," Drummond said in a statement.
Edmondson declined to say what he believes an equitable settlement would be, adding that he hopes to talk with Drummond about the case.
The other defendants named in the lawsuit are Cal-Maine Foods Inc., Tyson Poultry Inc., Tyson Chicken Inc., Cobb-Vantress Inc., Cargill Turkey Production L.L.C., George's Inc., George's Farms Inc., Peterson Farms Inc. and Simmons Foods Inc.