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Arkansas, Oklahoma to study Illinois River Watershed

story by Ben Pollock, special to The City Wire

As a follow-up from a Feb. 20 announcement in Little Rock, Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said Wednesday (March 13) during a stop in Fayetteville that the state and Oklahoma soon will begin a scientific study to establish an attainable, safe phosphorus level in the Illinois River.

Lake Tenkiller in northeast Oklahoma is part of the Illinois, which flows through both states and ends in Oklahoma. The two states have been at odds for some three decades over water quality in the watershed.

Oklahoma’s previous attorney general, Drew Edmondson, filed a federal lawsuit in 2005 against 14 poultry firms – including Tyson Foods Inc. and Georges Inc. of Springdale and Simmons Foods Inc. of Siloam Springs – alleging that water run-off from farming operations was contaminated from their use of poultry litter as fertilizer. The material is poultry bedding material such as sawdust soiled by manure. The outcome of the suit is pending in U.S. District Court in Tulsa.

McDaniel explained at Fayetteville City Council Chambers that a 10-year agreement between the two states to lower the watershed's phosphorus content to 0.037 milligrams per liter of water ended last June and that they have been negotiating a new agreement.

"Over those 10 years, the cities and businesses of Northwest Arkansas have in fact spent hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce the phosphorus level from 5 to 10 milligrams per liter to 1 and even less than 1. That is an enormous environmental success story in and of itself. Furthermore, that number is still dropping," McDaniel said. "However, it is not possible to reach 0.037 anytime soon. Any attempt to comply would be enormously expensive."

He called the 0.037 milligram per liter standard unrealistic from the beginning.

"As with any environmental regulations, the costs should not be imposed on the citizens unless one can initially prove that the burden is justified and that the goals are based on sound science. In this case, it is our position 0.037 is neither reasonable nor attainable. Nor was it fairly calculated in the first place. The standard was based on a methodology that did not accurately reflect the actual needs of the environment of the region," McDaniel said.

One purpose of the new agreement, signed by McDaniel and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt and initially announced Feb. 20, is to end the costly litigation.

"Our simple goal on this issue has not changed," McDaniel said, which is to improve "our common environment and our common economy." He added that tens of thousands of Oklahomans work in the poultry industry as well as Bentonville-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

The "stressor-response study" will take three years of work by a group of qualified scientists and that the states will be bound by their analysis. A six-member board will be appointed to set parameters for the study and the standards by which to hire the consulting company of scientists. The states' governors each will appoint three board members.

"We expect the cost to be well under $1 million," McDaniel said of the study.

The Feb. 20 announcement said the cost would be about $600,000.

Aaron Sadler, press secretary for the attorney general's office, said later that the purpose of the area news conference was an opportunity for McDaniel to take questions on the study and last month's two-state agreement.

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Randy Young, executive director of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, said after the Fayetteville news conference that Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe likely has the three chosen and will announce them soon.

Young said the watershed's toxicity level was an ongoing issue he addressed on his first day as commissioner, in 1985. The first step in starting this process, he said, "is to make sure we have the money. Then we set up the six managing directors."

McDaniel said the funding would come from the state as well as Northwest Arkansas governments.

"We are better as partners than we are as opponents," McDaniel said of Arkansas and Oklahoma several times.

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