Oklahoma Legal Changes In Animal Waste
Management Precipitated By Citizens' Concern
L. Michelle Stephens
Public Policy Director, Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Inc.
The most controversial issue addressed during the 1997 Oklahoma legislative session was an agricultural one--the regulation of concentrated animal feeding operations and the animal waste associated with the industry. Like many other states, Oklahoma's predominate concerns focus on poultry and swine waste issues. In Oklahoma the struggle to manage huge amounts of waste produced by industrial styled poultry and swine operations in harmony with local citizens and the environment is an ongoing and difficult task. A recent editorial in the Daily Oklahoman illustrates the sentiment among many rural citizens about the need to better manage manure from industrial styled animal feeding operations. "Patience is a virtue, but there is a limit to how long one can suffer from the effects of large-scale confined animal operations. In Oklahoma, those most affected by corporate hog farms had nearly run out of patience...Setting up such operations became too easy leading to more corporate hog and chicken farms than the state can handle with existing regulation...Now is the time to put the brakes on corporate animal farms. The object is not to eliminate them but to make them environmentally safer and less threatening to those living nearby." (Editorial, 4 Dec. 1997)
The swine waste issue began brewing after a 1991 bill created a broad exception to the anti-corporate farming statute found at Title 18 O.S.Supp.1996, § 951 et seq. 1020. Unlike the recent sentiment, Oklahomans, in 1991, were largely unconcerned about swine production and the resulting waste, when Oklahoma had 190,000 hogs in production. (Hinton, 1997) In 1997 Oklahoma's hog population totals over 1.5 million. (Boyd, 1997) Through the broad exception carved out of the anti-corporate farming law in 1991, coupled with the lax environmental regulation of large swine farms, Oklahoma became an attractive state for large-scale swine production. Oklahoma quickly changed the face of its swine production with very little public debate about the implications of inviting industrial hog production into the state to operate under an "honor system" type of regulatory scheme.
In the past two years Oklahoma has tripled its swine numbers which resulted in an increase of 332%. National Hog Farmer recently reported that within the next few years there will be enough production capacity within a 100-mile radius of Guymon, Oklahoma, to produce 10% of the U.S. hog marketings. (Emphasis added by author.) (Vansickle, 1997) The burgeoning industrial swine operations caught the state and its regulatory agencies unprepared to deal with both the volume of growth and the demand for immediate favorable treatment by the corporate swine industry on the one hand and the intense opposition to industrial swine operations from citizens experiencing sudden hog population increases on the other hand. This is clear from the fact that state agencies did not have the budgets, personnel, rules, or statutes necessary to deal with the issue at the time the demand for services was required. The result is conflict, loss of trust in state government, polarization of the issue, and political warfare.
In every area of Oklahoma experiencing rapid growth of corporate hog farms there are large numbers of citizens who, based on their experiences, sincerely believe that their property is being devalued, that they are being taxed to bring in something that is destroying their quality of life, and that their environment is being destroyed by horrible odors, water pollution and water depletion associated with the disposal of the animal waste. They believe that their health and the health of their families are being threatened and that the open waste lagoons are a potential disaster waiting to happen.
The corporate swine community is angry because they believe that the State invited industrial hog production through maintaining minimal licensing requirements and financial incentives. They have invested millions of dollars in production facilities. Many follow the letter of the law and some go beyond the law to protect the environment, yet do not feel appreciated for doing so.
Many farm groups and individual farmers are frustrated because they believe farmers and ranchers have historically been good stewards of the land and have a good reputation with the rest of the citizens of the state. They are fearful that regulation and laws passed to regulate industrial swine facilities will spill over and impact them when they have done nothing to merit being brought into a more regulated system. Traditional agriculture is also fearful that it cannot compete with well-financed and government-subsidized corporations, particularly if mandated to spend more in environmental compliance. Farmers are forced to look at either getting out of the business or becoming contract growers for the corporations. This is evidenced by the fact that while the number of hogs produced is steady or increasing slightly, the number of hog farmers is declining rapidly.
While bills had been introduced (and quickly killed), the first significant change in the manner industrial swine facilities known as concentrated animal feeding operations ("CAFO") are licensed came in the form of an Attorney General Opinion in 1996. In the landmark A.G. Opinion No. 96-76 the Oklahoma Attorney General stated that the "Board of Agriculture must conduct a hearingan individual proceeding under 75 O.S.1991 and Supp.1995, §§ 309-323 of the Oklahoma Administrative Procedures Actwhen landowners within the vicinity of the proposed feed yard operation present specific factual allegations showing that the proposed feed yard operation may have a direct, substantial and immediate effect upon their property or legal interest."
It was in this climate of competing interests between Oklahoma citizens and corporate farm lobbyists that the legislature began to address the animal waste issue, which historically had been ignored. Surprisingly, it was not environmental groups that lobbied for regulation of animal waste, but citizens around the state who were concerned about water quality and quality of life issues. While various bills were introduced during the first session of the 46th Legislature (1997), House Bill 1522 ("HB 1522") was the bill that survived. An editorial published in The Sunday Oklahoman prior to the passage additional animal waste regulation summarized the new public concern regarding the issue: "What began as an economic development tool during the Walters Administration has become a boon for corporate hog farms and a major source of grief for those who live nearby. The Oklahoman generally supports minimal regulation of business and reasonable environmental rules, but now we wonder: Is corporate hog farming in Oklahoma under-regulated?" (Editorial, 30 March 1997) The editorial is also an example of even the most conservative thinkers with regard to regulation of industry becoming concerned about under-regulation of industrial hog production. The editorial accurately noted that many of the farms were so remote that the obvious effects of placing thousands of swine in a small area escaped notice by most of the public. The writer noted that critics of corporate hog farming say the benefits go to a "privileged few" while most of the adverse side effects accrue to nearby landowners.
After the issuance of the A.G. Opinion and significant pressure by grass roots citizen groups, the Oklahoma Legislature passed House Bill 1522 ("HB 1522") requiring licensing hearings and all large swine feeding operations using a liquid waste system to be licensed. Highlights from HB 1522 include: authority granted to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture to monitor lagoons if written complaints are received; prohibition against land application of liquid waste within 500 feet of an occupied dwelling or 300 feet of a drinking water well; requirements for operations to set back from occupied houses; and mandatory submission by applicants of a pollution prevention plan and design plan to the Department for pre-approval.
Oklahoma's Governor Frank Keating entered the discussions with Executive Order 97-07 which stated that "because the state's current activities related to the monitoring,
remediating, and abating the water quality problems attributed to the handling of poultry, swine and bovine water are fragmented and inefficient" he established the Governor's Animal Waste and Water Quality Protection Task Force. The task force was charged with examining the current and past disposal of animal waste and its effect on the quality of Oklahoma's water supply and developing a state wide strategy and action plan to oversee the future use of animal waste and its effect on the quality of Oklahoma's water supply. After more than six months of study the 15-member Animal Waste and Water Quality Protection Task force submitted about 75 recommendations in a final report to Governor Keating. According to Governor Keating the following are the highlights of the task force recommendations: The unrestrained growth of confined animal feeding operations pose a threat to our precious ground water and reservoir supplies. It is also unreasonable to expect people who live near these facilities to tolerate severe odor problems. Local residents should have the power, by vote on a county option basis, to approve or disapprove the size and nature of these businesses. Some new regulations are necessary, including licensing, training for operators, soil testing to potential pollution problems, odor abatement procedures and tougher rule requiring barriers between waste lagoons and ground water levels. In addition, large feeding operations should not be built close to church camps, scenic rivers or other recreational sites.
The Oklahoma House and Senate appointed a joint panel charged with reviewing recommendations for regulating corporate hog and poultry farming across Oklahoma. The panel is reviewing the more than 75 recommendations by the Governor Keating's Animal Waste and Water Quality Protection Task Force for improving water quality and regulating corporate farms. House Democrats are urging a moratorium ''of perhaps up to a full year'' on expansion of corporate hog farms. (Gumm, 1997)
While the poultry industry has not exploded like the swine industry, eastern Oklahoma's contract and corporate poultry production has steadily increased over the past 30 years. The majority of the Oklahoma poultry industry, dominated by a handful of large vertically integrated companies, uses dry litter type waste disposal. Perhaps because the risk of environmental degradation by a dry litter system is less obvious than with the large waste lagoons associated with the swine industry, poultry operations have enjoyed little regulatory scrutiny. (Lassek, 1997) However, many eastern Oklahoma citizens are increasingly concerned about the impact that improper waste disposal may have on the state's lakes and streams and municipal water supplies.
The western Oklahoma swine waste issue is predominately fueled by rural citizens concerned about degradation of their quality of life through air and water pollution caused by swine waste, while the eastern Oklahoma poultry waste issue is led by a mixture of urban and rural residents concerned about nutrient overloading of surface water through improper application of chicken litter. The reason for urban concern over poultry waste centers around two lakes with excessive nutrient loading and eutrophication. Eucha and Spavinaw Lakes are owned and operated by the City of Tulsa, the second largest metropolitan area in the state. The lakes are a key water supply source for a half-million people in the Tulsa region. (Bragg, 1997) An Oklahoma Conservation Commission study completed in February 1997 regarding the Lake Eucha watershed found that the water quality of the lake was being threatened by high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous that likely are coming from the abundance and inappropriate application of dried poultry waste in the watershed. (Wagner and Woodruff, 1997)
Governor Keating's Animal Waste and Water Quality Protection Task Force determined that because poultry waste management procedures are vastly different from those used by other confined animal production industries, a new statute should be created to specifically regulate the poultry industry. The following is a synopsis of the recommendations regarding poultry waste: integrators (the corporate owners who contract with small farmers to grow poultry) should require contract growers and corporate farms to have or be in the process of obtaining an animal waste management plan; in phosphorus threatened watersheds soil and litter should to be tested; the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture should perform appropriate testing of soil and litter to detect priority pollutants; and the program for inspection and enforcement of the regulations should be funded through fees collected from the animal owners, not the contract growers.
Also as a result of citizens' concern and imminent threat of legislative action regarding the previously unregulated broiler industry, the lobbyists for the poultry integrators and the Department of Agriculture worked out emergency rules in December of 1997 that allow the poultry industry to police itself when it comes to animal waste. Tulsa's mayor expressed concern that some of the rules address long-term issues that would be better handled by the state Legislature. The rules cover soil testing requirements, require poultry farm operators to take measures to prevent runoff of poultry waste into nearby water supplies and require periodic inspections by companies that contract with the poultry farmers and supply them with birds.
The Oklahoma legislative session began February 2, 1998. With increased interest in the effects of swine and poultry waste on the country's environment, many are projecting that further laws will be passed to assist in the management of animal waste in harmony with the environment and Oklahoma citizens.
Boyd, B. Oklahoma Farm Statistics, 1997, Volume 17, Number 10.
Bragg, P. "Presentation to Governor Frank Keating's Animal Waste and Water Quality Protection Task Force, 20 Aug. 1997.
Gumm, J. P. Press Release, 10 Dec. 1997, Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Hinton, M. "Lawmakers Not Ready to Blow Pig Farms Down." Sunday Oklahoman 18 May, 1997.
"How Do You Smell R-E-L-I-E-F?" Editorial Sunday Oklahoman 30 Mar. 1997.
Lassek, P.J. "Lake Eucha Drowning in Algae." Tulsa World 17 Aug. 1997.
"The Year of the Pig." Editorial, Daily Oklahoman 5 Dec. 1997.
Wagner, K. and Woodruff, S. "Phase I Clean Lakes Project." Oklahoma Conservation, Commission, February 1997.
Vansickle, J. "Market Shifts Create New How Powerhouse States." National Hog Farmer 15, May 1997