Does the Red Fern Grow?

by Greg Walcher on January 24, 2017

At the risk of repeating myself (this is a recurring theme), there are many examples of major environmental controversies that aren’t really about the environment. Far too often, adversaries face each other across courtrooms arguing not about environmental protection, but about power, control, and money. Especially money.

Another case came to national attention this week because of the nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to be Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It was predictable that the environmental lobby would oppose him, because he has fought the regulatory over-reach of that agency, even gone to court several times to stop it. Millions of Americans are also frustrated by this over-reach, so it became one of the campaign themes responsible for Donald Trump’s election. That does not mean the EPA’s current defenders will give up, though. They cannot afford to do so.

True to form, some of those groups have raised concerns about Mr. Pruitt’s dedication to clean air, clean water, and healthy wildlife. They are especially keen to accuse him of being “soft” on cleaning up polluted rivers, but the example they cite actually says more about the opponents’ agenda than about Mr. Pruitt’s environmental record. The coalition raising the ruckus is still hopping mad about a legal case filed by the Oklahoma Attorney General – not Mr. Pruitt, but his Democratic predecessor. And of course, the real issue isn’t clean water, but the failure of that lawsuit to extract millions of dollars from the chicken industry.

Where_the_red_fern_grows_1996At issue is a 25-year controversy over the Illinois River, which begins in Arkansas’ Ozarks and flows 145 miles to the Arkansas River in Oklahoma. It is “Where the Red Fern Grows,” according to Wilson Rawls’ classic children’s novel about a boy named Billy, and his Redbone Coonhound hunting dogs.

Pollution from, among other things, using chicken manure as fertilizer on farms, was substantially affecting water quality in what Oklahoma considers one of its most scenic waterways, and the cradle of an enormous agricultural and recreational economy. In 2003, Oklahoma and Arkansas reached an agreement to reduce phosphorus levels over the next 10 years, to a standard of .037 parts per million. More recent research has concluded that the standard itself was not based on science, but on political compromise. Nevertheless, the industry, trade associations, local governments and others worked hard to improve the water quality significantly – and that has happened.

Ed Fite, administrator of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, says much less chicken waste is now being applied to land in the Illinois River Basin. In fact, “About 75 percent to 85 percent of the waste once utilized in the basin is now being trucked out of the region.”

As so often happens, though, it then turned out that improved water quality wasn’t good enough. Industry opponents wanted money. So in 2009 the previous Oklahoma Attorney General filed suit in federal court against a number of chicken producers in Arkansas, seeking injunctive relief and monetary damages. Almost all of the claims were dismissed by the federal court, except the monetary damages part, on which the court never ruled.

Then in 2013, both States had new Attorneys General, one a Democrat and one a Republican (Mr. Pruitt), and they decided to settle the case for several reasons. First, the 10-year deadline in the agreement was fast approaching. Second, the artificial (political) standard of .037 parts per million would not be met, despite what the Arkansas Attorney General calls “huge improvements in water quality” and despite the chicken industry’s overwhelming success in implementing new “best practices” on Arkansas farmland. Third, for Mr. Pruitt and other new Oklahoma leaders, the issue was always about clean water, not money.

Instead of pursuing the litigation further and forcing millions from Arkansas producers, the two States (again, with bi-partisan leadership) decided to talk. Arkansas’ Democratic Attorney General, Dustin McDaniel, now says, “The resulting agreement reflects that Oklahoma enhanced, not relaxed, its enforcement of environmental protection. Scientists were appointed to establish the proper water quality
metrics, and at no time were the phosphorous abatement measures relaxed. It was an historic moment that demonstrated that cooperation in pursuit of environmental protection yielded better results than litigation.”

Shouldn’t that be the real point? All environmental discussions ought to center on achieving a clean and healthy environment, and not on whose ox is being gored, or how much money can be paid to whom. We should care whether the red fern grows, not who paid for it.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel January 20, 2017.

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