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Playing chicken: poultry companies, growers and government agencies square off as animal wastes pile up.

Major poultry companies are preparing to place manure-disposal policies in their contracts with almost 6,000 Arkansas growers.

While tightly controlling what farmers feed the birds they grow, the firms have never claimed ownership, control or responsibility for the wastes those birds produce.

It remains to be seen whether the unprecedented step of telling growers how to dispose of manure will be enough to defuse Gov. Bill Clinton's tougher, more comprehensive five-year plan to curb water pollution from animal wastes.

Clinton's plan, developed by natural resources aide Ken Smith and officials of two state agencies, was presented to the governor's industry-dominated Animal Waste Task Force on April 29.

Under the governor's proposal, growers would implement management plans voluntarily.

Those caught polluting ground or surface waters with animal wastes would face potential fines and other civil actions by the state Department of Pollution Control and Ecology.

New legislation would not be required. Both PC&E and the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission have existing authority. What they don't have are the regulations needed to carry out that authority.

The Clinton plan is based on recommendations by a Virginia consultant. The consultant, Roland Geddes, was hired to evaluate the state's efforts to curtail water pollution from non-point sources (runoff), specifically animal wastes.

Geddes says a mostly voluntary approach is preferred. But he warns that if it doesn't work, Arkansas and other states soon could face mandatory federal regulations.

Best Management Practices

In the poultry industry, they are known as best management practices. They deal with how often, where and under what weather conditions chicken litter can be spread as fertilizer.

Earl Smith, an engineer with the Soil and Water Conservation Commission, says best management practices can differ from the "total resource management plans" in Clinton's proposal.

"For the farmer with one broiler house, best management practices |for manure disposal~ probably would be 95 percent of it," Smith says. "But for the guy with chickens and hogs or cattle, and maybe a row crop where he uses a pesticide, we want the situation handled as a package -- a total picture."

No price tag has been put on Clinton's proposal, which calls for a team of at least 50 water quality technicians to help growers implement management plans. There also would be additional PC&E inspectors and expanded laboratory facilities.

Geddes concedes it "won't be cheap."

The task force chairman, Randy Young, is also executive director of the Soil and Water Conservation Commission. Young has urged task force members to help "refine" cost estimates and be prepared to voice their views at a June meeting.

Larry Snodgrass of Lowell and Steve Crychel of Eureka Springs did not wait for June.

Snodgrass, the "at large citizen" on the task force, called the plan "a step in the right direction" as long as it does not apply to farms with small numbers of chickens, turkeys, hogs or cattle.

Crychel, who represents the state Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission, said the plan was "headed in the right direction."

Arkansas Wildlife Federation representative Bob Apple of Dardanelle said after the April meeting that the voluntary approach won't work and regulations are needed.

Archie Schaffer III, an official at Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale, began criticizing Clinton's plan before it was unveiled.

Schaffer says the plan is "politically motivated" because Clinton is the likely Democratic presidential nominee. The governor's environmental record, illustrated by pollution of the White River, is being examined by national media organizations such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and NBC News.

Rep. Lloyd George of Danville, a poultry grower and cattleman, says privately the governor's plan "will work. We'll make it work."

"Mad As Hell"

Because George has been the poultry industry's point man in the House for years and endorsed the governor's plan as workable, some Capitol observers were suspicious that the Clinton-Tyson showdown was a charade.

George says that isn't so. He claims the poultry industry is "mad as hell" at the governor.

Clinton and the poultry and swine industries have been on a collision course since May 27, 1991. That's when the governor summoned task force members to his Capitol conference room, quietly reminded them they had been appointed 13 months before with nothing to show for it, labeled animal waste as Arkansas' "greatest environmental threat" and said he expected recommendations to be on his desk by September 1992.

At the heart of the fight is the question of who will pay.

Claud Rutherford of Simmons Industries Inc. at Siloam Springs, who chairs the task force's Voluntary Approach Evaluation Committee, told the panel that major poultry companies "are considering putting an environmental addendum" on their contracts with growers.

Schaffer confirmed that in a later interview, saying "everybody knows" the industry is "looking carefully at how to require best management practices as part of the contract" with growers.

"You cannot put this load |financially~ on the back of the individual grower," Rutherford says.

Yet neither he nor Schaffer will commit their companies to paying for best management practices.

Clinton's plan recognizes that its provisions could "impose a financial burden on growers that cannot be recovered in the sale of the product."

It envisions federal money combined with industry funds, state funds and incentives such as tax credits.

Frank Corley of Nashville, president of the Arkansas Contract Growers Association and a Tyson grower for 10 years, says the responsibility for dead bird and manure disposal should be shifted from growers to large companies and then paid for by consumers.

Growers, Corley contends, are locked into "absolutely non-negotiable" contracts. He says the companies write the contracts, set the prices, pay the growers based on weight when the chickens are delivered and make no allowances to cover the "costly and labor-intensive" work of dead bird and manure disposal.

A Grower Speaks Out

Corley won't say how many members his organization has. He says members fear losing their contracts for organizing and speaking out.

Schaffer says Corley "is not speaking for more than one-half of 1 percent" of the state's almost 6,000 growers.

The companies, Schaffer says, don't own the manure because the growers want it. The only growers who don't want it, he insists, "are those who don't have any pastureland" on which to spread manure.

Corley says his group will urge its members to "execute a detailed waste management and environmental protection plan" prepared by the federal Soil Conservation Service.

In return, Corley asks that:

* All disposal systems be monitored by the state rather than the companies.

* The companies bear the cost of the programs.

* The task force recommend passage of legislation creating a surcharge to be passed on to consumers.

Even more ominously from an industry standpoint, Corley calls for legislation "to ensure contractual fairness and protection for both the integrated companies and the individual growers."

He further calls for the creation of "a commission of neutral parties ... to make sure the growers are treated fairly."

Chuck Cremeen of Hensley, who heads Arkansans for Environmental Reform, says there is no legal basis for the assumption that growers own and are responsible for animal wastes. Under the contracts, he explains, title to the animals never passes to the growers.

The companies "must be recognized as the owner of the dead animal if it owned the animal while live," a position paper distributed by Cremeen says. "Consistently, he who owns the animal owns the manure it produces."

Major companies sent lists of best management practices to growers more than two years ago. Rutherford and Schaffer insist nothing more stringent than a voluntary approach is needed. They point to the Moore's Creek project in the Illinois River basin in Washington County, where all but four of 468 landowners have initiated best management practices voluntarily and where only 3.9 percent of the 7,945 acres involved have tested above 50 pounds of residual nitrates, considered the level of concern.

Rutherford says there have been only small increases in water pollutants in western Arkansas even though chicken and hog populations have soared.

University of Arkansas researchers "tell us there's no problem," Schaffer says.

At Odds With PC&E

That puts the industry and the university at odds with PC&E, which submitted its required biennial water quality report to the Environmental Protection Agency on April 1.

National media reports have focused on surface water and fecal coliform as a pollutant. Fecal coliform levels determine whether a stream is suitable for swimming. Scientists view the levels as a general indicator of whether pathogens (disease-causing bacteria) are present.

Some experts play down the significance of fecal coliform since it does not distinguish between ordinary soil bacteria and pathogens. But the principal author of PC&E's report, John Giese, says it is "still a valid indicator of pollution."

Still, PC&E staffers talk more about nutrients, nitrate and phosphorus, focusing on groundwater. Particularly alarming to them were analyses by the UA's Cooperative Extension Service that showed 21 of 76 domestic wells sampled in Benton and Washington counties with high nitrate levels.

Joe Nix of Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia, a nationally known water chemist, says Giese and others are speaking from experience.

"John is waving the red flag, and he's right to do so," Nix says.

Nix is concerned science is being ignored in the development of public policy.

Geddes, the Virginia consultant, says Arkansas' water quality is "generally good" but that some non-point source problems exist. He says there is the "potential for significant problems" if the poultry industry "continues to expand without improving waste management."

The emphasis, he says, should be on prevention rather than remediation.

The Meeting

Did Tyson's Archie Schaffer Try To Convince PC&E To Change Its Water Quality Report?

Two poultry industry officials came calling at the state Department of Pollution Control and Ecology on March 25.

They were Archie Schaffer III of Tyson Foods Inc. at Springdale and Don Allen, the veteran executive director of the Arkansas Poultry Federation.

They met with three PC&E officials -- Randall Mathis, the director; Chuck Bennett, the head of the water division; and John Giese, the head of the environmental preservation division.

Earl Smith, an engineer with the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission, was an observer.

There's no dispute the meeting was held and that Allen said little.

Otherwise, views of what transpired vary wildly.

The visit took place just as PC&E was finishing the report it must submit by April 1 each even-numbered year to the Environmental Protection Agency. The document describes the condition of Arkansas' waters based on samples.

Giese, a career PC&E scientist, was the report's principal author. He is quiet, shuns the spotlight and spends every available moment in the field.

Giese often begins conversations with, "Well, I wish I had more data, but ..."

In response to questions about the March 25 meeting, though, Giese admits, "I felt my credentials were being challenged."

Many environmental experts believe Giese was pressured to soften the report.

"Wouldn't you feel that way if you were told repeatedly that the report would make us |the poultry industry~ look bad, make the governor look bad and make you |PC&E~ look bad?" Giese says. "We wrote off eastern Arkansas |on water quality~ years ago. I guess they want us to write off west Arkansas now."

Horse Manure

"That is so full of horse....," Schaffer says when asked if he attempted to have the report altered. "There was absolutely no pressure, and I'm horrified that anyone thought there was. What we said was that national media reports were giving the impression" that animal wastes were polluting Arkansas waters.

The meeting took place four days after a Washington Post article on fecal coliform in the White River. The story was based on PC&E's 1990 report to the EPA.

"The sole purpose of the meeting was to educate me about what the report is, how it is put together and about what all this means," Schaffer says.

He admits he pointed out that Gov. Bill Clinton "was going to get dragged in because news reports would focus a lot of attention on it, and that people needed to be careful about how they talked about it. For instance, the word 'impact' means different things to scientists than it means to the media."

Schaffer says he also is "horrified" that Giese felt his credentials were being challenged. The Tyson official says he plans to apologize for the fact that Giese misconstrued the purpose of the meeting.

"I was trying to find out how the report is done," Schaffer says. "It sounds to me like we were at two different meetings."

Smith says there were "a lot of probing questions" asked at the meeting, but he doesn't consider anything he heard or saw to have been intimidating.

The report went to EPA with no changes.

It was widely rumored that Mathis sent a copy of the report to Schaffer before Clinton's office received its copy.

"I sent them at the same time," Mathis says. "But the governor's office said it couldn't find |its report~.

"This is not unusual."

UA Vs. PC&E

Are Conflicts Of Interest Affecting Water Studies By University Scientists?

The relationship between the University of Arkansas and the state's politically powerful poultry industry has created concern on the part of some employees of the state Department of Pollution Control and Ecology.

Geologist Ken Steele, director of the university's Water Resources Research Center, has had contracts with PC&E for groundwater nitrate studies during the past four years. His current work for PC&E concerns nitrate levels in northwest Arkansas caves inhabited by the Ozark cavefish, an endangered species.

But Steele also is performing a study for Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale to determine if high chloride (salt) levels in some domestic water wells come from poultry sludge lagoons. His initial findings are that the lagoons aren't responsible.

Steele says there is no conflict of interest in doing work for PC&E and Tyson at the same time if the studies concern different subjects.

"Data is data," he says.

However, PC&E groundwater planner Ralph Desmarais of Little Rock is uncomfortable with the situation. In fact, he's downright upset with Steele's work on nitrate levels in northeast Washington County wells near Mayfield.

"There are many ways to bias a study" besides manipulating data, Desmarais says.

Nitrate Studies

Desmarais says that a former Steele graduate student did a nitrate study for the U.S. Geological Survey in the relatively pristine karst (fractured limestone shale) terrain of northern Boone County. Because the area has few confined animal operations, the student produced an excellent baseline study against which data from other areas could be measured, Desmarais says.

PC&E hired Steele to perform a similar study in a worst-case scenario area of northwest Arkansas for comparative purposes. Steele chose the Mayfield area, where about 6 million chickens are grown.

Desmarais says he didn't know it at the time, but an earlier U.S. Geological Survey study on springs in the area showed they were "pretty clean" in the area of nitrates. The reason, he says, is that the water flows south from a heavily wooded area rather than north.

Meanwhile, the UA's Cooperative Extension Service was analyzing nitrates in random well samples from another part of Washington County.

"They came up with higher numbers than we did," Desmarais says.

Steele says no one from PC&E has complained to him about his work. Further, he says, Desmarais' statements about his study and the Extension Service's findings are untrue because high nitrate levels were found in the same percentage of wells tested -- about 3 percent.

"Our results are similar," Steele says.

Desmarais counters that even though the percentage of wells with high nitrate levels was about the same, the Extension Service found three times as many wells with mid-range levels.

Desmarais says he is recommending to his superiors that PC&E redo its worst-case scenario study, this time in the Moore's Creek area of Washington County, where about 20 million chickens are grown.

Desmarais has been in the news before. Prior to joining PC&E nine years ago, he was on the faculty at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. As one of four whites fired from the history department, Desmarais sued, charging the school with reverse discrimination and violation of academic freedom.

He lost.
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Griffee, Carol
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:Industry Overview
Date:May 11, 1992
Words:2728
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