Oklahoma governor signs bill shielding poultry companies from lawsuits over chicken litter pollution

Lawmakers continue efforts to protect companies following federal lawsuits.

June 10, 2024

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said he was “very excited” to sign into law a bill that shields poultry corporations from lawsuits over pollution caused by chicken waste, which for decades has led to high rates of phosphorus and E. coli in the state’s eastern waterways.

Senate Bill 1424 prevents lawsuits against poultry companies over chicken waste pollution as long as the poultry farm has an approved waste disposal plan with the state.

The new law comes after a nearly two-decade-long legal battle between the state and several poultry companies, including Tyson Foods, over pollution in Oklahoma’s Illinois River Watershed.

In that case, Tyson argued it should not be liable for pollution because its farms had approved plans with the state on how to dispose of the waste, which is often sold as fertilizer to other farmers.

However, a federal judge ruled last year that Tyson and the other companies were responsible for the pollution. The state and companies failed to reach an agreement after a court-ordered mediation, and a final order from the judge is still pending.

Earlier this year, Investigate Midwest reported how lawmakers had originally attempted to end the ongoing lawsuit between the state and Tyson through this new bill, but the retroactive language was removed after some questioned its legality.

But in the years since that lawsuit, state lawmakers have taken multiple steps to deregulate the growing poultry industry and shield it from legal attacks.

Last year, Investigate Midwest reported how the state allows large poultry farms to avoid a more restrictive registration process and construct buildings that house thousands of chickens closer to homes and neighborhoods.

In 2023, the Oklahoma Legislature passed a law barring protests over water permits that target poultry operations.

However, environmental organizations and opponents say SB 1424 is the most significant step toward protecting poultry corporations.

“It prioritizes Big Ag and corporate lobbyists over the health and safety of our citizens’ drinking water,” said state Rep. Mickey Dollens, an Oklahoma City Democrat who voted against the bill.

Elevated phosphorus rates have been found in several eastern waterways, including in parts of the Illinois River near Tahlequah where a report last year found levels more than thirty times higher than the state standard of 0.037 milligrams per liter.

The Spring Creek Coalition, an eastern Oklahoma nonprofitthat opposed the new law, regularly monitors waterways and has found elevated levels of phosphorus, nitrogen, E. coli and enterococcus, which indicates the presence of pathogens from animal feces.

The new law was originally proposed in a House bill by Rep. David Hardin, a Republican from Stilwell, who said lawsuits over chicken litter pollution should be brought against the state since the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture regulates waste management plans.

“We set the rules and (the companies follow) the rules that we set and then they get stuck in lawsuits over rules we set,” Hardin said. “All I’m saying is if you’re going to sue, sue the state.”

In the state Senate, coauthor Sen. Brent Howard, a Republican from Altus, said the bill protects farmers who purchase poultry litter to spread on their fields as manure.

“These farmers, a lot of these people that are doing the spreading of this (litter) are the stewards of the land ... they care as much if not more about the quality of that water,” Howard said.

The House bill’s language was converted to a Senate bill last month in a procedural maneuver used by lawmakers when bill deadlines pass. With the legislative session nearing its end, Stitt signed the Senate bill into law last week and told reporters Friday it was “one of the reforms we‘ve been looking for for a long time.”

“If we want to change the rules in Oklahoma, change the rules, but you can’t have a business have a permit, doing what they're supposed to do and then come in and let a frivolous lawsuit take place and somehow put them out of business,” said Stitt, a Republican in his second term. “It’s un-American; it’s not going to happen in Oklahoma.”

The governor has received thousands in donations from poultry officials, including more than $30,000 from members of the Arkansas-based Simmons family, which owns Simmons Foods and was named in the federal lawsuit.

Stitt also praised the bill’s increase in fines for violations of improper chicken waste disposal from $200 to $1,000, saying, “If you’re not doing what you are supposed to do … you should be held accountable.”

However, even if the company violates a waste management plan, the bill appears to still prevent some lawsuits, as it states, “An administrative violation shall not be the basis for a criminal or civil action, nor shall any alleged violation be the basis for any private right or action.”

While state law once banned the discharge of poultry waste into state waters, the new law altered that language to say poultry operations shall take “measures designed to prevent” that from happening, which some believe weakens the law.

The current law also prohibits runoff of waste after being applied to farmland, but the new law said that such an event will now just require “revisions” to the nutrient management plan.

While both Stitt and the bill’s authors said they were seeking to protect individual farmers, opponents point out that past legal action has almost always targeted the large corporations who contract with the poultry farms.

“HB 4118 is the most blatant special interest legislation to come down the pike,” wrote former Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who originally filed the federal lawsuit in 2005, and former Gov. Frank Keating in a recent guest column opposing the bill. “It benefits only out-of-state companies making billions of dollars at the expense of Oklahoma’s rivers and lakes. It does not protect farmers. It does not protect Oklahoma resources.”

The Oklahoma Municipal League and the Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma also opposed the bill. The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole tribal governments issued joint statements against it.

“We are deeply disappointed by today’s vote and the fact that this critical issue was rushed through on the final day of the session, ”Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said last week, while also noting his tribal government will explore additional ways it can “protect our citizens.”

Despite that opposition, the House version of the bill advanced overwhelmingly: 69 to 25 in the House and 33 to 10 in the Senate.


Kirkpatrick Policy Group is a non-partisan, independent, 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization established in 2017 to identify, support, and advocate for positions on issues affecting all Oklahomans, including concern for the arts and arts education, animals, women’s reproductive health, and protecting the state’s initiative and referendum process. Improving the quality of life for Oklahomans is KPG’s primary vision, seeking to accomplish this through its values of collaboration, respect, education, and stewardship.