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Poultry, Arsenic, and the Scenic Illinois River

The quality of the scenic Illinois River in Oklahoma is threatened by pollution from Arkansas’ poultry industry. A lawsuit to stop the pollution seemed certain to win, but it may be derailed by a huge influx of money into the recent Oklahoma elections.

A writer in India, Pabitra Mukhopadhyay, wrote an excellent article (1) explaining how arsenic in some wells in India were poisoning those who drank from them. He asked that I write an article explaining the chemistry of arsenic and how it might get into the groundwater. (2) A comment on that article suggested another possible source that I missed. Roxarsone, which has arsenic as the active ingredient, is often used to treat parasites in poultry and poses a risk to the environment. (3) The arsenic eventually ends up in the chicken droppings and, if disposed of improperly, in water supplies. That is probably not the source of the arsenic in India, but it may have implications for a lawsuit about the water quality of the Illinois River in Oklahoma.

The Illinois River begins in the Ozark Mountains in Northwestern Arkansas and flows through the scenic hills of Northeastern Oklahoma. It is a scenic river because of its sparkling clear water and the steep bluffs, rock formations, and large old trees along its banks. It is a favorite for water sports, fishing, camping, and canoeing and is considered a valuable resource for Northeastern Oklahoma. A dam built across the river forms Tenkiller Lake, one of the clearest and deepest lakes in Oklahoma and the water supply for many Oklahoma towns. Both the river and the lake have beauty and economic value to the state of Oklahoma and great efforts have been taken to ensure that the quality of the water remains high. This has caused contention with the state of Arkansas that has had a profound affect on the politics of Oklahoma.

Lawsuits: As the population of  Northwestern Arkansas has grown, the amount of pollution entering the river has also grown, particularly the nutrients  that causes algae growth and degradation of the river. High levels of nutriets and warm summer temperatures favor the growth of  blue-green algae, a type which is toxic.  In 1977, Oklahoma formed the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission to see that the Rivers in Oklahoma retain their scenic and economic value. The Commission tried negotiating with the cities and businesses in Arkansas to reduce their pollution. Some progress was made but the amount of phosphate and nitrate entering the river continued to grow. Finally, Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson filed a lawsuit lawsuit in 1986 to stop upstream sources from polluting the river as it flows into Oklahoma. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In a landmark ruling in Arkansas v. Oklahoma (1992), the Supreme court upheld Oklahoma’s water quality standards and ruled that the water quality standards of the downstream state must be implemented by the upstream state. (4) This established a very important principle as almost everyone lives downstream from someone.

After the 1992 ruling, the Scenic River Commission was successful in negotiating with the point sources, mostly upstream businesses and municipalities, to reduce pollution entering the river. However, the amount of pollution in the river continued to grow, mostly from non-point sources related to agricultural use. Northwestern Arkansas has become one of the largest poultry producing areas in United States. The litter from the industry has been disposed of by spreading it on farmland, and nitrates and phosphates from it eventually finds its way into the water and into Illinois River. Oklahoma has not been able to negotiate with the chicken industry to reduce the amount of plant nutrients entering the river as the poultry industry says that the pollution is from many other sources. Finally, Drew Edmondson, the Attorney General  for the state of Oklahoma filed a lawsuit against the poultry industry to settle the matter. It appears that the evidence and the case law is on the side of Oklahoma, but the case seems to hinge upon establishing whether the poultry industry can be cited as a major source of the pollution.

Arsenic: This is where the arsenic enters into the story. If Roxarsone were used by the poultry industry in Arkansas, then surely some of the arsenic would end up in the water along with the plant nutrients. If arsenic were found in the river then that would be a clear indication that the source was the poultry industry. I sent a request to the Oklahoma Department of Water Quality asking if the water had been tested for arsenic. Here is the reply:

“You are correct in that arsenic compounds are sometimes added to chicken feeds, and as such, have the potential to show up in streams, rivers, lakes, and groundwater in watersheds where chicken litter has been spread on the land surface.

Unfortunately, the poultry lawsuit that you referred to has not been resolved. It is my understanding that they did sample for arsenic as part of the suit, but that data is not readily available. This data collection was not completed by a state agency, so we don’t really have access to it. However, even if I had the data, I probably wouldn’t be able to share it with you until such a time as the lawsuit has resolved.”

Oklahoma Politics: Drew Edmondson, the Atty. Gen. of Oklahoma who filed the lawsuit, resigned last year to run for governor. He lost in the Democratic primary, partly because the poultry industry contributed heavily to his Democratic opponent and led a campaign to paint him as “anti-business”. The poultry industry then donated generously to the Republican candidates as they considered them to be friendlier toward their interests. The Republican candidates won the races for governor and attorney general.  Scott Pruitt, the new Attorney General, who received $15,000 in donations from the poultry industry, said he planned to review the case. The closing arguments in the poultry lawsuit were made before he took office, but it remains to be seen how actively he will defend the case or if he will find a reason to derail it. The new Governor, Mary Fallin, also plans to review the poultry lawsuit and she has proposed slashing the budget of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission and consolidating it with the Oklahoma Conservation Commission. These, they say, are just budgetary decisions and have nothing to do with the poultry company donations.  It remains to be seen how avidly they will pursue environmental issues in the state.

(1) http://water.thinkaboutit.eu/think5/post/the_water_of_death/

(2) http://jcmooreonline.com/2011/01/31/arsenic-and-the-water-of-death/

(3) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/04/070409115746.htm

(4) http://www.illinoisriver.org/CEDocuments/Downloads_GetFile.aspx?id=121203&fd=0

(C) 2011 J.C. Moore

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