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Oklahoma judge creates new large poultry farm requirements for Agriculture Department

In this March 25, 2010 photo, two white leghorn hens poke their heads out of their cages at a Purdue University research farm in Montmorenci, Ind.
Michael Conroy
In this March 25, 2010 photo, two white leghorn hens poke their heads out of their cages at a Purdue University research farm in Montmorenci, Ind.

A district judge in Delaware County ruled that the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry must give greater public notice, consider public input and pollution issues prior to authorizing the construction of large poultry farms.

Judge David Crutchfield issued the order in a case against the Agriculture Department. Owners of the poultry operations are listed as “interested parties” in the lawsuit. The Spring Creek Coalition, the plaintiff, is a group of citizens who live, own property, work or frequent the Spring Creek watershed area in Delaware County.

Crutchfield ruled on June 28 that the Agriculture Department cannot approve registration, licenses or permits for the construction of new poultry farms exceeding 125,000 chickens until the agency has met new requirements. The Department must give written notice to land-owners within one mile of the proposed facility at least 90 days prior to construction. The notice should include the size of the facility, the number of chickens and instructions to request a public hearing on concerns, among other items.

Two public notices must also be published in a local newspaper, containing similar information.

The Agriculture Department must also provide “meaningful consideration” of public concerns surrounding the environmental effects the facility may have on the air and water sources.

The Spring Creek Coalition’s lawsuit alleged that the Agriculture Department violated due process by not allowing ample opportunity for public input on the construction of new large poultry farms. These large poultry facilities often

In his judgment, Crutchfield wrote that the court found that the Department didn’t adequately inform Spring Creek of their due process rights to address their grievances.

“The court further finds the Department’s treatment of Spring Creek and its protest letters to be deceptive and made with the intent to deny the Plaintiff and its members due process rights, including the right to notice and right to be heard,” Crutchfield wrote in his judgment.

The litigation spanned years. The Department previously filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s lawsuit, which was originally filed in 2021.

“The Department has ignored or neglected its duties to protect and preserve the waters of the state of Oklahoma which have denied the Plaintiff protections afforded other United States citizens under the Clean Water Act,” Crutchfield wrote.

A law signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt in May prevents lawsuits against farms spreading “chicken litter” on their land if the farm is following plans approved by the state. The litter can be used as fertilizer, but critics said it can also contaminate waterways.

The issue has spanned decades. In 2005, former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson filed a lawsuit against poultry companies in the state, including Tyson Foods. The lawsuit alleged the companies allowed chicken litter to run into the Illinois River, causing increased levels of phosphorus, nitrogen and E. coli in the streams and lakes of the watershed.

An Oklahoma judge ruled in favor of the state Jan. 18, 2023. In his judgment he wrote that the court was in favor of the state for its claims of public nuisance, trespassing and federal common law nuisance from the defendants, the poultry farm owners. Tyson Foods filed a motion to dismiss months later, on Oct. 26.

Lee Benson, a spokesperson for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, said the department “still considers this case to be in litigation” and gave no further comment.

In a statement, Oklahoma Farm Bureau President Rodd Moesel said that the bureau was disappointed in the ruling and called it “extreme judicial overreach.”

“… This burdensome and costly rigamarole serves only to drive up food prices in a time of skyrocketing inflation, making it harder than ever for Oklahomans to access healthy and affordable protein,” Moesel said in the statement. “… Oklahoma farmers and ranchers strive to comply with the law, but we believe the law should be prescribed by the legislative branch – not the judicial branch.”

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janelle Stecklein for questions: info@oklahomavoice.com. Follow Oklahoma Voice on Facebook and X.

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Oklahoma Voice