Residents of the Mayes County community of Strang, population 64, were alarmed after a small notice appeared in the weekly newspaper announcing plans for a poultry mega-farm capable of holding hundreds of thousands of birds north of town near the Neosho River.  

Beth Wilson, who lives directly across the road from the proposed industrial farm, said she worries poultry litter will contaminate a small stream that runs through her land where her children play. The creek eventually flows into nearby Lake Hudson. Phosphorus from poultry litter can contribute to algae blooms that can kill fish

“This has always been a farming community,” Wilson said. “I’m not against one or two chicken houses going in, but I am against six chicken houses going in on that small piece of property.”

Many Strang residents began looking for ways to stop the operation. But they didn’t know that the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry had already approved plans to build six, 39,600 square-foot buildings capable of holding 324,000 birds at a time, with no notice to the public or input from neighbors.  The operation will produce birds for the Arkansas-based poultry processor Simmons Foods. 

There are currently no public notice requirements in state law, or a formal process for citizens to protest poultry farms at the state Department of Agriculture, other than sending a letter.

Some help could come as the state of Oklahoma and several major poultry processors, including Tyson Foods and Simmons Foods, are hammering out a settlement on pollution from poultry farms in Eastern Oklahoma’s scenic Illinois River Watershed. But the problem has grown even beyond that area since the state first moved to sue the companies in 2005. The state has approved 23 new poultry operations in Eastern Oklahoma since June 2022, with another six operations still awaiting approval. The area saw an explosion of new poultry farms between 2017 and 2018 when Simmons Foods opened a processing plant in Gentry, Arkansas. Producers now raise more birds in larger facilities. Oklahoma poultry farms generated 197,121 tons of litter in 2018, up from 110,996 tons in 2003. 

A federal judge ruled in January that the poultry processors are responsible for water pollution from the independent producers they contract with to raise birds. But the judge’s ruling only covered the Illinois River Watershed, which includes parts of Delaware, Adair, Cherokee and Sequoyah counties in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond has recently declined to comment on the settlement negotiations. But he told The Frontier in an interview in early February that he wants any agreement with the poultry companies to reach beyond the Illinois River, expanding protections to the Grand (Neosho) River watershed, which includes Strang. This would allow Oklahoma to avoid suing the poultry companies a second time, he said. 

“We just need parties at the table to reach a global resolution that changes the face of Eastern Oklahoma forever,” Drummond said. 

Drummond said he wants the agreement to require poultry producers to reduce phosphorus pollution and pay for independent water quality testing.

Neither Simmons Foods nor Tyson Foods representatives responded to messages from The Frontier seeking comment.

No public notice requirements

Even the tiny legal notice Strang residents found in the newspaper —  for an environmental impact study on the new poultry farm required for a federal agricultural loan — contained incorrect information about where to send public comments.

Most residents have never dealt with an issue like this before, and have been stymied by bureaucracy and a lack of information said Rex Wood, a local landowner near the Strang property,

“I don’t know what to do. I shouldn’t have to. When they take our money, our taxes, these agencies are supposed to be overseeing and doing the best for us,” Wood said. “We’re not a bunch of backwoods people who don’t know all this sort of stuff. I’m just saying we don’t know the strategy and finesse within the law to govern that sort of stuff. We just expect it all to be taken care of — our health, the air, the ground, the water.”

Residents began gathering signatures on a petition to stop the poultry farm from moving in, but only then learned that the address for correspondence in the legal notice was incorrect, said  Halle Million, who owns a home and ranch neighboring the proposed site. 

“We’re not sure what happened to all of our correspondence,” Million said. “We’re kind of wondering if anyone thinks we really care, because we do.”

Residents said they have reached out to some elected officials, but have yet to hear any concrete solutions, and said they feel that the state’s current system is heavily skewed in favor of the large poultry companies.

Strang’s representative in the state House of Representatives, Rep. Josh West, R-Grove, works as an executive at Simmons Foods, the integrator for the poultry operation planned in Strang. West did not return phone messages from The Frontier seeking comment.

The state Agriculture Department approved a license for the company Cung Poultry to raise chickens at the Strang site in January, before neighboring property owners knew about the plans. Owner Lydia Cung told The Frontier that neither she nor her husband have spoken with neighbors about the planned farm. A land sale for the farm hasn’t been finalized yet, but she anticipates construction will begin in April or May. She and her husband also plan to build a house on the site. 

Cung said she and her husband, who already own one poultry feeding operation near Wyandotte, are following all legal and environmental requirements.

“I don’t think this will impact the environment and the creek,” Cung said.

Neighbors organize

Without any state public notice requirements, residents in nearby Delaware and Adair counties have filed several pending lawsuits to halt poultry farm expansion. The local environmental group Spring Creek Coalition has a pending lawsuit against the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, seeking to require the agency to provide notice to nearby landowners before a poultry operation moves. The lawsuit claims that the state agency has failed to meet its statutory obligations to ensure the poultry operations are not degrading the environment.

The Spring Creek Coalition claims the state Agriculture Department should treat the poultry feeding operations it licenses as more intensive, industrial-scale farms, which are subject to stricter environmental monitoring and enforcement, as well as federal public notice requirements to nearby landowners. 

Any change to allow for landowner notifications and public comment through the state Agriculture Department would likely have to come from a change in state law through the Oklahoma Legislature, said Lee Benson, a spokesman for the agency. 

“Simply, it comes down to the Legislature has not required notifications to landowners. And so, that’s simply it. If the Legislature were to pass a law that made that requirement, things would be different and we would have to regulate it in a different way,” Benson said. 

Benson said Oklahoma has strengthened rules on poultry farms in recent years, enacting  legislation to require farms to submit plans on how they will dispose of chicken litter. The agency is also in the process of implementing a rule to require poultry operations to submit the plans within one year of applying for a license, he said. Currently, there is no deadline.

Watching the process play out over the last few years has been alarming and disheartening, said Pam Kingfisher, co-founder of the local environmental group Green Country Guardians, which has fought against the proliferation of poultry farms. She blames state regulators for a lack of enforcement. 

“They can sit in their little office in Oklahoma City and read their handbooks, but we’re out here smelling this shit and living with it,” Kingfisher said. “Our creeks are dead. They are full of floating green algae now.” 

Some residents have had success in their efforts to fight poultry, though there is still pushback by state officials.

In September 2022, a Delaware County judge issued a ruling in favor of a neighbor, who sued one of the poultry farms and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. The judge ruled that the state agency did not consider whether issuing water well permits would cause pollution to surface and groundwater.

This legislative session, Rep. David Hardin, R-Stilwell, whose district includes Delaware, Adair, Cherokee and Mayes counties, introduced House Bill 2053, which would make challenging water well permits for poultry operations more difficult and in some cases require the challengers to pay legal and other fees to the poultry operator. Hardin’s wife Lorri Hardin, a former Oklahoma Department of Agriculture employee, was contracted with Simmons Foods until March 2021 and helped create state-required poultry litter plans for many farms that have moved to Oklahoma, records show. David Hardin did not return phone messages from The Frontier seeking comment.

A settlement more than a decade in the making 

Since the 2010 federal trial in Oklahoma’s lawsuit against poultry processors, the state and poultry industry have taken some steps to reduce phosphorus pollution, such as hauling chicken litter out of the Illinois River Watershed to be spread on fields for fertilizer. Water monitors have noticed a decrease in phosphorus loading in the watershed in recent years, although levels still remain above the legal threshold set by Oklahoma.

But there’s still more work to be done, Drummond said. 

“There’s still some actions that the poultry industry needs to take because when there’s heavy rains, still there is leaching of phosphorus into the waters,” Drummond said.

In January, nearly 13 years after the trial, U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell issued a 219-page ruling, finding in favor of the state.

Under Frizzell’s ruling, the state and poultry companies have until March 17 to reach an agreement and Frizzell will enter his own judgment if no deal has been made. 

-Frontier reporter Reese Gorman contributed to this report.