Oklahoma is suing more than a dozen poultry growers, charging that animal waste produced in their operations poses a hazardous threat under the federal Superfund law, enacted 26 years ago to clean up abandoned chemical dumps.
Oklahoma’s lawsuit follows the lead of litigation brought by the cities of Tulsa, Okla., in 2001 and Waco, Texas, in 2004, that also sought to declare animal manure a hazard under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, better known as the Superfund statute. Both the Tulsa and Waco cases were settled out of court.
Such legal trends are alarming the nation’s leading farming and agricultural organizations. They argue that Superfund was passed to deal with neglected waste sites such as dioxin-plagued Love Canal in New York state and a chemical dump in Times Beach, Mo., that had been used to produce the military defoliant Agent Orange.
“If a single court case finds that America’s farmers are liable under the Superfund law, the economic impact across the country could be devastating to American agriculture and related industries,” says Farmers for Clean Air and Water Inc., a broad coalition of farm organizations.
“Superfund claims could be brought against small operations and individuals, and the history of Superfund indicates that all potential contributors (from farmers to truck drivers to livestock companies) can and will be held liable,” said the coalition, which includes the American Farm Bureau Federation, Dairy Farmers of America, the National Chicken Council, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.
Farmers say amendments or clarification of the Superfund law are necessary to ensure that the statute “with its severe liability provisions does not apply to animal manure,” and they are working with members of Congress to that end.
Agricultural interests are worried about the 2005 federal lawsuit that Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson brought against 14 poultry production firms, including four subsidiaries of Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, which he says are contaminating the Illinois River watershed with “millions of tons of litter,” a term used to describe a combination of poultry waste and bedding.
“This is all about whether to allow an industry to kill an entire river system,” Mr. Edmondson said in a telephone interview. “We spent 31/2 years negotiating with the industry” unsuccessfully before filing suit.
Chicken litter can contain E. coli bacteria, antibiotics and other potentially harmful substances. Mr. Edmondson said he is particularly concerned about phosphorous, which is added to chicken feed to support rapid growth of poultry. Also at issue is the money-saving practice of spreading manure on fields as fertilizer, rather than buying commercial fertilizer.
Rebeckah Adcock, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, says manure cannot compare to hazardous chemicals in terms of longevity or toxicity.
“We recognize manure can cause a problem, and we accept that regulations are needed. But to suggest that manure is a substance that should be regulated as a hazardous chemical under Superfund — no matter how much is involved — is preposterous,” Ms. Adcock said.
In a letter sent to House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, a group of 109 House members called for prompt action on H.R. 4341, a measure sponsored by Rep. Ralph M. Hall, Texas Republican, which would exempt animal manure from regulation under two key federal environmental statutes.
The letter, signed by 88 Republicans and 21 Democrats, would exclude animal manure from regulation under the Superfund law and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-know Act of 1986, which requires that releases of hazardous chemicals be reported.