Arkadelphia News

Chicken farms hide in plain sight under Arkansas law

A Cargill poultry farm near Ponca, Arkansas. Pinpointing the locations of chicken farms in Arkansas can be hard because individual nutrient (waste) management plans are not public records. | Image from Google Earth

By JORDAN P. HICKEY | Arkansas Advocate

If you drive down the winding country roads west of Ponca, Arkansas, you might come across a stretch of land with three long structures — metal roofs, green siding. Just off the county highway, down a short clip of gravel road, you’d see a sign marking the chicken farm as a Cargill operation. It would give every indication of existing on this material plane — but for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t exist on paper in Arkansas. At least not according to the public record. 

That’s because chicken houses — and all such industrial housing associated with the poultry industry — are exempt from the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act under a law passed by the Arkansas Legislature in 2003. This is of particular interest to people like Gordon Watkins, founder of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance (BRWA), who are concerned about the effect that waste, or litter, produced by chicken operations is having on the Buffalo River’s watershed.

Although some public information is available about the litter, it’s mostly on a countywide, not site-specific basis, which makes tracking the flow of potentially damaging nutrients like phosphorus especially problematic. 

That may be changing thanks to a recently decided federal court case — a decision that also highlights just how damaging industrial runoff can be. 

On Jan. 18, 2023, U.S. District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell handed down a ruling for a case that had concluded nearly 14 years prior. The lawsuit had been brought by the state of Oklahoma against 11 Arkansas poultry producers. The federal judge ruled that the producers had violated Oklahoma trespass and public-nuisance laws by letting their contract growers use chicken and turkey waste as fertilizer within the Illinois River watershed.  

One of the key findings of the 219-page ruling is this: In the years ahead, the major poultry integrators — like Cargill and Tyson — may be responsible for the waste coming out of the chicken houses.

“For decades, the poultry integrators [Tyson, Cargill, George’s, et al.] have said, ‘We don’t have any responsibility for the waste — that’s on the farmer. We provide the chickens and we provide the feed and then the farmer gets the shit. How they handle that is up to them to do it. So we’re not liable for any of that,’ ” the BRWA’s Watkins said. “Well, this lawsuit said no, that’s not the case. You’re ‘vicariously liable.’ That’s the language that the judge used. So now, if that stands, the integrators are responsible for that waste.”

‘Summary information’ only

The Buffalo River Watershed Alliance formed in 2013 after members realized a large-scale hog operation, C&H Hog Farms, had been approved near one of the Buffalo River’s major tributaries. Concerned that runoff might contaminate and irrevocably damage the river — the first National River in the U.S. and a tourism boon that drew $66.3 million to communities near the park in 2020 — the BRWA spent years petitioning the Arkansas government to close C&H, (the state eventually bought it out in June 2019). 

In 2016, while still in the thick of things with C&H, Watkins and members of the BRWA began turning their attention to the footprint of industrial-scale animal farming on the Buffalo River.

When they started asking questions about the poultry industry, however, they hit a wall.

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