A judge heard testimony Friday morning from the executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board and a Delaware County resident who is seeking a preliminary injunction against OWRB issuing more short-term groundwater permits to a nearby poultry feeding operation.
An application for a long-term groundwater permit submitted to OWRB in 2017 by the poultry operation’s owners, Chau Tran and Donna Nguyen — who own multiple chicken farms in Delaware County and are named as interested parties in the suit — was challenged by residents near the site, and has yet to be acted upon by OWRB.
With the long-term permit on hold, OWRB issued multiple, short-term 90-day groundwater permits to the poultry operation in 2018 and 2019. However, unlike the long-term permits, the short term groundwater permits do not require notices of the application to be issued to neighbors and there is no formal process to challenge the application, attorneys for the plaintiffs said.
Over the past couple of years, eastern Oklahoma — especially Delaware County — has seen an influx of chicken farming operations, shortly after Arkansas-based Simmons Foods announced a new processing plant in Gentry Arkansas. Delaware County residents reported little to no warning of new chicken houses that seemed to pop up overnight and are capable of holding hundreds of thousands of chickens.
Some residents reported wells that ran dry shortly after chicken farms drilled their wells, in addition to lower air and quality and large chicken-hauling trucks damaging county roads that are not suitable for heavy vehicles.
Though it is the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry that is responsible for approving applications to establish a poultry operation, it is up to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board to approve or disapprove permits for the operations’ water wells.
At its crux, the lawsuit, filed by seven Delaware County residents in March, alleges that OWRB’s issuance of multiple short-term groundwater permits since 2018 violated the plaintiffs’ rights because the short-term permit process does not allow for challenges against them and nearby residents are not required to be notified when one is issued.
Friday’s hearing was over a preliminary injunction request by the plaintiffs, requesting that the judge order OWRB to cease issuing the 90-day permits while the lawsuit is active, saying the issuance of multiple temporary permits is essentially allowing for long-term use of the water with short-term permits that cannot be protested against.
Louanna Cochran, who is one of the Delaware County residents who filed suit against OWRB, was the first witness to testify.
Cochran, a full-blood Cherokee who lives on land that was originally allotted to her husband’s ancestors, said she had no prior notice when the six-house chicken farm, which holds up to 306,000 chickens, went up across the road, a few hundred feet from her house.
Now, Cochran said, when it rains water flows from the chicken farm through her front yard and near her water well. Holiday and family gatherings at her house have stopped, because the smell of the chicken houses and fear of what might be in the water, she said.
“All of the kids used to play there. Now, we don’t let them,” Cochran said. “Now, we don’t gather there like we did because they’ve got no yard to play in. We don’t want them playing in that nasty stuff.”
Also testifying Friday was Oklahoma Water Resources Board executive director Julia Cunningham.
Asked by plaintiffs’ attorney Jason Aamodt, of the Indian and Environmental Law Group in Tulsa, whether any of short-term groundwater permits issued by OWRB had ever been denied or cancelled, Cunningham said she did not know of any that had been.
“Since there is no formal hearing (on the short-term permits), there are not formal protests,” Cunningham said, adding that some still write in with concerns about those permits.
Aamodt also questioned Cunningham about a memorandum written by a former OWRB general council in the 1980s advising against issuing short-term groundwater permits to an applicant while that applicant’s long-term permit was being challenged. Cunningham said she had not seen that document prior to the lawsuit.
Asked by Aamodt why the short-term permit for the poultry operation was issued by OWRB, Cunningham said the issue comes down to property rights — most groundwater is considered private property under Oklahoma law.
“Disallowing a private property owner use of their private property is something I deemed as not acceptable,” Cunningham said.
The hearing on the proposed preliminary injunction only lasted until noon, but is scheduled to resume next week, Sept. 12 at 1:30 p.m.