Open doors and open minds
BY JANET PEARSON Associate Editor
Sunday, August 08, 2010
8/08/10 at 4:27 AM
Some Oklahomans are wondering if changes in Oklahoma's top leadership could make the future of the Illinois River watershed just as murky as some of the water over there.
After two contenders for high offices — governor and attorney general — accepted campaign contributions from poultry industry interests, speculation arose that the state's long-running lawsuit over poultry-raising practices in eastern Oklahoma might be abandoned.
Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, defeated last month in his bid to be the Democratic nominee for governor by Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, filed the lawsuit five years ago after years of fruitless negotiations with poultry companies.
At issue is the application of poultry litter — a mixture of waste and bedding — on area farmlands. The litter is a valuable fertilizer, but Edmondson alleged too much is being applied to the land, leading to degradation of downstream waterways.
Poultry company officials have fought back fiercely, contending variously that the poultry litter is the responsibility of the growers; that there are other potential sources of the culprit chemical, phosphorus, in the watershed, and that they have followed applicable laws on the subject.
The lawsuit currently is in the hands of U.S. District Judge Greg Frizzell, after months of testimony and years of evidence gathering. It's not known at this point when Frizzell might issue a decision.
And, there's a wild card in this complicated scenario: The Cherokee tribe is seeking to join the lawsuit as a plaintiff, and if its appeal is granted, it's anyone's guess what the fate of the lawsuit will be.
It was natural to wonder if Edmondson's long, hard-fought battle with the poultry companies contributed to his primary loss last month. After all, thousands of Oklahomans earn income from growing chickens. And now, it's natural to wonder what happens next, with Edmondson about to leave office.
Askins, who faces U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin in the November general election, accepted a total of $26,000 in poultry stakeholder contributions, according to reports. Scott Pruitt, the Republican nominee for attorney general — who faces a little-known Democrat in November — accepted a like amount from interests connected with the poultry industry, according to one report.
Askins' campaign manager, Sid Hudson, said she met with more than a dozen poultry industry representatives days before the July 27 primary, but he insisted the pending lawsuit was not a subject of discussion.
The poultry representatives "said they were hopeful that if she was elected she would have an open door to discuss things," Hudson said. "She said her door has always been open, and they said, 'That's all we're looking for.' "
Pruitt has responded several times to queries about his acceptance of industry-linked contributions. The Save The Illinois River organization confronted him in a July 21 online letter, demanding "to know your position on pursuing the poultry lawsuit if necessary should you be elected."
Tyler Laughlin, Pruitt's campaign manager, responded on July 24: "Scott will evaluate the lawsuit at the appropriate time. Recent decisions by the presiding judge have put certain claims in question. ... It is very difficult to ascertain today what the lawsuit will look like in 2011. The prudent response is to assess the status of the litigation based on the facts existing at the time the next AG takes office."
Pruitt's response pointed out that his primary opponent had stated he would continue the lawsuit, "while Scott has said he will take a close look at it with an open mind."
Laughlin gave a similar response to The McCarville Report Online, which reported the candidate had accepted $26,000 from poultry industry interests.
Quid pro quo?
Nobody's saying Askins or Pruitt has sold out to the poultry industry — not by any stretch. It's worth noting that Gov. Brad Henry accepted donations from poultry leaders four years ago, and he has done nothing to try to stop Edmondson's lawsuit.
For that matter, it's questionable how much a governor could do to influence this litigation, especially if the governor is a Democrat and the attorney general is a Republican. A Democratic governor likely won't have much sway with a Republican-dominated Legislature either, some of whose members may be tempted to join the fray.
Even if no promises were made, there's always that perception that donors expect something for their contributions, especially those with something big at stake. And vague comments about open doors and open minds open the way for suspicious interpretations.
Advocates for protecting the Illinois are still optimistic a federal court order, or new federal phosphorus restrictions in the making, will lead to improvements in the watershed.
"We are concerned that we —and the river — have lost an important ally in Drew Edmondson," said STIR President Kurt Robinson. "Certainly, if Drew were to be elected governor, he would have used all of that political clout to protect the river and probably would push strongly for an appeal of any unfavorable decision that might come out of the trial. Be that as it may, we are still optimistic that the judge could rule for a restriction, or better yet, a moratorium on the application of poultry waste in the watershed."
The Environmental Protection Agency's mandatory study of phosphorus loading in the river, just starting up, also could lead to new phosphorus limits, STIR members hope.
As to the campaign donations? Robinson said he doesn't blame the donors "for trying to influence" Oklahoma elections "while such an important judicial decision is pending." But he does blame the candidates "for taking the money while the state of Oklahoma is actively engaged in the lawsuit. In my opinion, this is an unethical position to take for any candidate, and the money should be returned."
They're not likely to give the money back at this point. Perhaps what we should hope for is that they mean what they say — that they haven't made up their minds and are open to a resolution that protects everyone's interests as much as possible.
So let's take them at their word: that their minds and doors are open — to all viewpoints, including those of the thousands of Oklahomans who want their precious natural resources protected, those who may not have the resources to donate to campaigns, and those who believe the courts could be the key to addressing this festering problem.
Janet Pearson 581-8328
Two people canoe down the Illinois River near Tahlequah. The river watershed is the subject of a lawsuit pitting the state against the poultry industry. JAMES GIBBARD / Tulsa World file
Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Jari Askins (center) gives the thumbs up to supporters at an election watch party after defeating Attorney General Drew Edmondson for the Democratic nomination for Oklahoma governor. ALONZO ADAMS/ Associated Press