Boaters, campers thank pollution lawsuit for helping Illinois River watershed appear cleaner

By Justin Juozapavicius, AP
Saturday, September 25, 2010

Boaters, campers credit lawsuit for improved river

SCRAPER, Okla. — Ellen Thompson remembers the first time she came to the Illinois River in 2006 to kayak: She saw cattle — and their droppings — alongside the river and heard tales that the waters were infested with poultry manure.

But on a recent warm morning, the river was clear.

“I didn’t see any cows. I didn’t see any signs of poultry waste or anything like that in the water,” the Fayetteville, Ark., resident said, standing on the riverbank in this northeastern Oklahoma hamlet. “The river itself is just gorgeous.”

Thompson is among the many boaters, campers and business owners who say the water appears to be much cleaner than it was several years ago. And they’re crediting the federal lawsuit Oklahoma filed in 2005 against the Arkansas poultry industry, saying the litigation brought more attention to just how bad things had become in the once-pristine valley.

In its suit, the state claimed runoff from land that has been covered with chicken waste for decades contaminated the Illinois River watershed. The lawsuit targeted companies that buy birds from the 1,800 poultry houses along the million-acre watershed, which straddles Arkansas and Oklahoma. The industry, including giants Tyson Foods Inc. and Cargill Inc., countered that farmers, area businesses and others were to blame for the pollution.

A decision on the lawsuit is still pending, but both sides agree that the river is cleaner. Industry tests show that phosphorus released into the Illinois River from wastewater treatment plants went from 125,000 pounds in 2003 to around 68,300 pounds in 2007. Phosphorus fertilizers can stimulate growth of algae blooms that reduce oxygen levels and kill fish.

Some of the river’s improved condition is due to strengthened state laws limiting the use of chicken litter, which is the feathers, droppings and bedding left in barns after birds are taken to slaughter. There’s also been beefed-up conservation programs for landowners in Arkansas and Oklahoma, and the industry says it has trucked more than 350,000 tons of poultry litter out of the watershed since August 2005.

And some farmers say they’re spreading less of the litter in the watershed, and disposing of it in a more environmentally friendly way.

Many, like Larry Stephens, say none of that would have happened without the lawsuit.

Stephens is manager of one of about a dozen float companies that operate along the river and said the cleaner waters have attracted more visitors, boosting his business by 5 percent over last year.

“It seems like the river is better than it was two years ago,” Stephens said.

A recent rafting trip by an Associated Press reporter down a six-mile stretch of the river revealed water clear enough to see schools of fish swimming below, a steady current and only a few patches of green-yellow algae coating the smooth rocks underwater.

At its worst several years ago, large areas of water amounted to a green, soupy mess, and the state claimed that the chicken waste dumped on the area contained E. coli, an indicator bacteria for salmonella, Staphylococcus and other bacteria.

Just how impaired this river valley remains, and what must be done further to fix it, is up to a federal judge in Tulsa to decide. His ruling is another chapter in a legal battle that could continue for years because both sides have said if they lost, they’d likely appeal.

The judge previously decided that Oklahoma couldn’t pursue monetary damages — totaling hundreds of millions of dollars — but the state is seeking injunctive relief, including the appointment of special monitors to ensure the companies properly dispose of the waste and a temporary moratorium on putting the litter on farmland for fertilizer.

The case also is being monitored by other states that are considering challenging how the poultry industry does business.

As the legal fight plays out, tens of thousands of people will have visited the watershed by year’s end, many unconcerned about the alleged pollution.

Visitors like 44-year-old Jason Milligan. He can remember coming to the river as a kid and was passing the tradition on to his 12-year-old son, who was along for his first float trip.

“The water’s clean,” he said. “But like I said, I’m not a scientist.”

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