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State lawmakers pass controversial bill to block lawsuits against farms for spreading poultry excrement onto land: 'The bill threatens to undo decades of progress improving water quality'

Critics are raising concerns about this litter polluting waterways.

Critics are raising concerns about this litter polluting waterways.

Photo Credit: iStock

Oklahoma is blocking residents' abilities to sue poultry farms for spreading excrement on fields, so long as they follow state regulations, The Oklahoman reported. Meanwhile, critics are raising concerns about this litter polluting waterways. 

What's happening?

Supporters of the law said it is necessary to save small farms from people downstream who want to shut them down. 

However, environmentalists and tribal groups said that poultry litter, which is often used as fertilizer, can enter local waterways and contaminate rivers, aquifers, and drinking water sources. 

Meanwhile, the bill also allows the state to slap a $10,000 per day fine on companies that violate state rules. 

According to The Oklahoman, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole nations released a joint statement saying the increased fines were ​​"a mere fee for the right to pollute" and that "the bill threatens to undo decades of progress improving water quality in Oklahoma."

Why is the bill concerning?

Large poultry operations like Tyson Foods and Cargill have already created environmental concerns in Oklahoma. In 2005, the state sued a handful of these companies, accusing them of polluting the Illinois River watershed. The suit has dragged on for decades and remains unsettled, according to The Oklahoman.

Studies have found a number of concerning contaminants in chicken litter, including Escherichia coli containing genes resistant to over seven antibiotics, heavy metals, and a number of antibiotics. If overapplied to fields, chicken litter and its associated contaminants can leach into soil and enter rivers, streams, and other waterways. This threatens access to safe, clean drinking water for nearby communities. Polluted waters also threaten people who depend on rivers and other water sources for activities like fishing and tourism

Oklahoma isn't the only state grappling with poultry litter pollution. For instance, activists in North Carolina are complaining about massive piles of feces, urine, and sawdust bedding at large-scale poultry operations in the state, citing lax regulations on the industry.

What's being done about poultry litter?

Applying poultry litter as a fertilizer is not necessarily bad. One group of researchers said it's "the cheapest and most environmentally safe method of disposing of the volume generated from the rapidly expanding poultry industry worldwide." That said, they also asserted that more rigorous studies are needed to determine the level of contamination in chicken litter and that standards need to be set for contaminants.

According to Oklahoma State University, it's important for farmers to only apply enough of this fertilizer to meet their growing crop's nutrient needs. This, the university said, will minimize nutrient leaching and runoff. 

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