W.A. Drew Edmondson (D)

(Legal Newsline) -A handful of large poultry companies risk going broke if they don't settle with state Attorney General W.A. Drew Edmondson over claims the companies contaminated Oklahoma waterways, he told Legal Newsline.

Edmondson, a Democrat, is suing large-scale poultry farmers, claiming waste from their farms have polluted the Illinois River watershed and Lake Tenkiller in eastern Oklahoma.

"To a very large extent, it is in their interest to try to reach a negotiated settlement that is a doable deal," Edmondson said in a lengthy interview.

Instead, he said, the companies are "trying to exhaust every avenue they can to avoid the kind of financial outlay we are talking about here."

"I would expect that the damage model that we create showing what is actually happened in the watershed will be beyond the reach of the companies," he said. "It's going to be far more significant than the resources that are available even though it's a multi-billion dollar industry."

Defendants in the lawsuit are: Tyson Foods Inc., Tyson Poultry Inc., Tyson Chicken Inc., Cobb-Vantress Inc., Cal-Maine Foods Inc., Cargill Inc., Cargill Turkey Production LLC., George's Inc., George's Farms Inc., Peterson Farms, Simmons Foods Inc., Cal-Maine Farms Inc. and Willow Brook Foods Inc.

As for the potential financial impact the lawsuit could have on the poultry companies, Edmondson said he is "sympathetic, but not sympathetic enough to drop the lawsuit" because the companies' potential losses "does not deter us from the overriding objective of having a business operate in an environmentally sound manner."

The attorney general said he does not expect the poultry companies to "craft a solution" until their attorneys have "filed every motion they can think of" to stop the lawsuit from progressing.

"It's only when they have exhausted what they reasonably think are methods of avoiding a day of reckoning that they will get realistic about resolving the issue," Edmondson said.

The lawsuit is being handled primary by the attorney general's office with the assistance of outside counsel, which has borne most of the costs associated with the lawsuit, Edmondson said. The case has a tentative trial date of Sept. 2009.

"We're gearing for trial at the same time we're always willing to talk," Edmondson said. "If there is not a negotiated settlement between now and then, we'll take the case to court next year."

Edmondson said the poultry companies are responsible for the runoff of polluted water from tons of poultry waste that has flowed into the waterways as the result of improper storage.

For the alleged damage, Edmondson said he wants an undisclosed amount, to be "hopefully" negotiated with the companies. If no deal is reached, an amount will be submitted to a jury, he added.

"We want enough to do some work reclaiming and restoring the river and the lake and the tributaries to the river," he said.

The bottom line, Edmondson said, is that, "You cannot destroy a watershed in the name of profit."

Pollution from poultry farms in an issue of national importance, Edmondson said.

He has called for a "national solution" to protect the nation's waterways, especially in Georgia, the Carolinas and the Delmarva Peninsula states of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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