Oklahoma governor signs bill shielding poultry companies from lawsuits over chicken litter pollution

260

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said he was “very excited” to sign into law a bill that shields poultry corporations from lawsuits over pollution caused by chicken waste, which for decades has led to high rates of phosphorus and E. coli in the state’s eastern waterways.

Senate Bill 1424 prevents lawsuits against poultry companies over chicken waste pollution as long as the poultry farm has an approved waste disposal plan with the state.

The new law comes after a nearly two-decade-long legal battle between the state and several poultry companies, including Tyson Foods, over pollution in Oklahoma’s Illinois River Watershed.

In that case, Tyson argued it should not be liable for pollution because its farms had approved plans with the state on how to dispose of the waste, which is often sold as fertilizer to other farmers.

However, a federal judge ruled last year that Tyson and the other companies were responsible for the pollution. The state and companies failed to reach an agreement after a court-ordered mediation, and a final order from the judge is still pending.

Earlier this year, Investigate Midwest reported how lawmakers had originally attempted to end the ongoing lawsuit between the state and Tyson through this new bill, but the retroactive language was removed after some questioned its legality.

But in the years since that lawsuit, state lawmakers have taken multiple steps to deregulate the growing poultry industry and shield it from legal attacks.

Last year, Investigate Midwest reported how the state allows large poultry farms to avoid a more restrictive registration process and construct buildings that house thousands of chickens closer to homes and neighborhoods.

In 2023, the Oklahoma Legislature passed a law barring protests over water permits that target poultry operations.

However, environmental organizations and opponents say SB 1424 is the most significant step toward protecting poultry corporations.

“It prioritizes Big Ag and corporate lobbyists over the health and safety of our citizens’ drinking water,” said state Rep. Mickey Dollens, an Oklahoma City Democrat who voted against the bill.

Elevated phosphorus rates have been found in several eastern waterways, including in parts of the Illinois River near Tahlequah where a report last year found levels more than 30 times higher than the state standard or 0.037 milligrams per liter.

The Spring Creek Coalition, an eastern Oklahoma nonprofit that opposed the new law, regularly monitors waterways and has found elevated levels of phosphorus, nitrogen, E. coli and enterococcus, which indicates the presence of pathogens from animal feces.

The new law was originally proposed in a House bill by Rep. David Hardin, a Republican from Stilwell, who said lawsuits over chicken litter pollution should be brought against the state since the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture regulates waste management plans.

“We set the rules and (the companies follow) the rules that we set and then they get stuck in lawsuits over rules we set,” Hardin said. “All I’m saying is if you’re going to sue, sue the state.”

In the state Senate, coauthor Sen. Brent Howard, a Republican from Altus, said the bill protects farmers who purchase poultry litter to spread on their fields as manure.