US: Pollution in the Water, Lawsuits in the Air

With Damage to Ecosystem Jeopardizing Tourist Industry, Oklahoma Fights Back

Every time the rain comes down, muddy water laden with phosphorus, arsenic and other contaminants flows into the Illinois River from chicken farms nearby and just across the border in Arkansas.


Frustrated that nearly four years of talks failed to produce a solution, Oklahoma is now suing eight firms -- including Arkansas giant Tyson Foods Inc. -- on the grounds that the chicken waste applied to crops near the river contains hazardous chemicals that are damaging the ecosystem and jeopardizing the region's tourist industry.

"They're not fertilizing, they're dumping," said Drew Edmondson, an Oklahoma lawyer who filed the suit last year. "My concern is for the environment. My concern is for the lake and the river, which I'm watching being degraded before my eyes, literally."

Across the country, states and localities are suing polluters outside their jurisdiction, and sometimes each other, in efforts to curb air and water contamination that respects no borders. They say they are forced to act because Congress and the Bush administration have failed to crack down on everything from storm water runoff to dumping of invasive aquatic species.

In some cases, there is little in the way of federal law or regulation. This is the case with the factory farms in Arkansas and Oklahoma. The administration is still sorting through which regulations apply to poultry, dairy and hog farmers, and existing rules don't apply to those who buy the waste for fertilizer. And some lawmakers, such as Rep. Ralph M. Hall (R-Tex.), are lobbying to permanently exempt these industries from even minimal federal oversight.

Other times the administration has blessed activities in one state that another state opposes: Virginia -- over Kentucky's objections -- plans to allow a strip mining company to discharge more than a billion gallons of briny water into a river just eight miles from where it flows into Kentucky.

In others instances, the Bush administration has declined to take action, such as the Environmental Protection Agency's decision not to regulate ballast water from freighters that release invasive species into waterways.

Joel A. Mintz, an environmental law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Miami, said he has noticed an increase in such cases. "The [state attorneys general] have gotten aggressive in the last couple of years," Mintz said. "It's a little hotter now."

EPA spokeswoman Jessica Emond said the agency works hard to monitor all pollution.

"EPA is committed to protecting public health and the environment by coordinating closely with its 10 regional offices to implement environmental laws at the state and regional levels," she said. "In addition, EPA solicits and takes into consideration comments submitted by state and local governments when developing national rules and regulations."

Correction to This Article

An Aug. 28 article about lawsuits filed over pollution crossing state borders described Drew Edmondson as an Oklahoma lawyer; he is the state's attorney general. The article also misstated the location of the law firm Conner & Winters LLP; it is based in Oklahoma, not Arkansas. "This river used to be crystal clear," recalled Ed Brocksmith, a member of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission. "Phosphorus is the problem here."

The inflow of nutrients has begun to change the river and the reservoir it feeds, Tenkiller Ferry Lake. At times the water is clogged with fish-killing algae, occasionally emitting a foul odor that affects the drinking water and undercuts the area's attraction as a tourist destination.

AMP Section Name:Environment
  • 181 Food and Agriculture

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