Poultry ruling or punchline that took way too long?

Poultry ruling

As a public service, I’m repeating a newspaper headline from this week that I’m sure a lot of people missed because it’s 2023 and there’s no longer a place for the daily paper in their lives.

“Ruling puts water pollution stamp on poultry companies”

I had deja vu all over again when I stumbled across the story on page 4A of Friday’s edition of The Oklahoman.

The case began in 2005 when then Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson filed a lawsuit on behalf of the state against 13 integrated poultry companies.

Edmondson alleged the poultry companies — most based in Western Arkansas — had polluted the Illinois River basin from the spread of chicken manure across pasture and cropland .

So, why is this important enough that I write a blog post about it?

Well, in 2008 I was a Business News reporter for The Oklahoman, with agriculture as one of my beats. When a hearing began in February 2008 in Federal Court in Tulsa on Edmondson’s bid for an injunction against spreading poultry manure in the Illinois River watershed, my job required I cover it for the paper.

drew edmondson
Drew Edmondson at poultry hearing.

The hearing was held in Tulsa federal courthouse before Judge Gregory K. Frizzell.

Turns out, the injunction hearing turned into a long-haul of court dates. It ran through four February hearings before a week’s pause, and then picked up in March for another week.

There was testimony from “expert” witnesses and acrimony between attorneys for both sides.

Judge Frizzell was clearly frustrated over the slow pace of the hearing.

“Frankly, this is the longest preliminary injunction hearing I’ve ever conducted,” Frizzell was quoted as saying in one of my stories.

What do I remember of the hearing 15 years later?  Seared into my memory is how vigorously attorneys from both sides of the case — plaintiff and defendants — attacked the credibility of every expert who testified.

In fact, attorneys worked so hard to destroy the credibility of the witnesses that the actual testimony seemed like an afterthought.

My friend Russ Florence also sat through each day of the hearing because his Tulsa-based public relations firm, Schnake Turnbo Frank, was working on behalf of the defendants. Today, Russ is President and CEO of Schnake Turnbo and is currently writing a book on the history of the firm, which includes a section on the trial.

Russ writes: “Like the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, each side tried to out-maneuver each — politically, legally, and publicly. They circled one another, trying to deliver a punch that would resonate …”

I was grateful when the hearing finally ended and I didn’t have to make a daily commute to Tulsa and back. Several months later Judge Frizzell denied the injunction request.

The actual trial over the pollution issue began the next year. I was no longer working at the paper, so someone else had the pleasure to cover it.

And now, almost 15 years later, we have our verdict. The poultry companies — 13 of them originally — are responsible for the poultry manure pollution of the Illinois Watershed.

“So much has happened since then,” Russ told me. “Some of the poultry companies have been acquired by others. Several of the key players have retired. And to think, I was single then, and am now married and have a fifth grader.”

And what of the punishment imposed on the responsible poultry companies?

“The parties are hereby directed to meet and attempt to reach an agreement with regard to remedies to be imposed in this action. In the event the parties are unable to reach an accord, the court shall enter judgment,” Judge Frizzell wrote in his ruling.

That’s it? It’s a ruling easily could have been imposed back in, say, 2009.

Seems like a joke that took way too long to get to the punchline.