More delays in Okla. poultry waste pollution trial

AP News
Posted: Nov 23, 2009 3:43 PM

One of the most closely watched environmental cases in years has turned into legal purgatory as the trial of Oklahoma's lawsuit against the Arkansas poultry industry is marred by delays and squabbling attorneys.

The pauses continued Monday, when U.S. District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell called a recess before 10 a.m. to read a document he'd been handed only minutes earlier.

"This is unfortunate," Frizzell said of the objection to an expert witness who attorneys for Oklahoma wanted to put on the stand _ another late addition to the thousands of pages the judge has had to sift through. Other arguments have come over intricacies such as the coding of one of thousands of exhibits in the case.

Frizzell retreated to his chambers, a familiar solace for the trial's 26 days, which have been spread over two months.

Meanwhile, about two dozen attorneys broke off into mini-huddles, talking college football, turkey and catching the last flights out of Tulsa for Thanksgiving.

It's no television courtroom drama, where elaborate cases are wrapped up in an hour's time. In fact, with all the starts and stops, it's easy to forget the main battle is over chicken poop.

Oklahoma argues the waste is a nuisance, a byproduct of poultry companies doing business in a sensitive northeastern Oklahoma watershed for decades. Poultry manure, Oklahoma says, runs off farm fields and into area lakes and streams, posing a health risk to the tens of thousands of people who use the Illinois River watershed each year.

The 11 poultry companies being sued by the state deny any wrongdoing and claim the manure is property of their contract growers, who use it is a cheap fertilizer. The companies are Tyson Foods Inc., Tyson Poultry Inc., Tyson Chicken Inc., Cargill Inc., Cal-Maine Foods, Inc., George's Inc., Cobb-Vantress Inc., Cargill Turkey Production L.L.C., George's Farms Inc., Peterson Farms Inc. and Simmons Foods Inc.

Frizzell inherited the 2005 lawsuit when he came on the bench, and there have been at least a half-dozen times when it has appeared he might pound his fists in frustration over the case that's not expected to be finished until the end of January.

Even before Monday's first recess, the judge remarked at the "absurdity" of what the case has become, saying any lawsuit can be boiled down into a handful of key documents. Instead, thousands _ if not tens of thousands _ of pages have been filed, including a pretrial order housed in two binders each about 4 inches thick.

"Quite frankly, it's ridiculous," Frizzell has said of the fat pretrial order.

Frizzell returned from his chambers about 10:15 a.m. Monday. He'd read the late-filed document, it was time for the attorneys to argue some more. When they had finished, it was time for another recess.