Okla. DEQ to sample private water wells
By TIM TALLEY Associated Press Writer
Despite a state Health Department finding that poultry litter was probably not the source of a deadly E. coli oubreak last year, Attorney General Drew Edmondson said Friday that Arkansas poultry farms were to blame for sickening some residents of northeast Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma Department of Health said previously it was unlikely that well water caused the outbreak at the Country Cottage Restaurant in Locust Grove last August. One person died and more than 300 others were sickened.
The department also said investigators who examined the well did not find bacteria of the type that killed one person and sickened 300 others.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Environmental Quality said Friday it would conduct additional sampling of private water wells next week within a five-mile radius of Locust Grove to ensure the safety of drinking water in the area.
The restaurant was required to use only city water before it was allowed to reopen.
Edmondson has filed a lawsuit accusing 13 Arkansas-based poultry companies of polluting the Illinois River Watershed with bird waste. The poultry litter is spread across pastures, and it ends up contaminating wells, he alleges.
Attorneys for the companies say the lawsuit is unfounded and that Edmondson's claims are unsubstantiated.
In a news conference Friday, Edmondson released findings of a report from attorneys with his Environmental Protection Unit. The report concludes that the well at the buffet restaurant "is, and has been, contaminated with poultry waste and associated bacteria, including E. coli."
"Because this well was used in food preparation around the time of the outbreak, it is possible that the well and its poultry-waste-contaminated groundwater was a source of the outbreak," the report said.
Edmondson's lawsuit against the poultry companies, filed in U.S. District Court in Tulsa in 2005, claims that excessive land application of poultry waste, which contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium as well as bacteria, antibiotics, growth hormones and harmful metals, could be a danger to public health.
The attorney general's report states there are 49 poultry houses within a six-mile radius of Locust Grove that have the capacity to produce 10,000 tons of waste a year. It also states there is insufficient pasture land to dispose of all of the waste near the houses.
The attorney general's office said the poultry houses are affiliated with two Arkansas-based companies, Tyson Foods and Simmons Foods, which are among the 13 named in the federal lawsuit.
A spokesman for Tyson, Gary Mickelson, said Edmondson "has just added to his record of making unsubstantiated claims."
"There has never been a single documented instance of a waterborne bacteriological disease being caused by the use of poultry litter," Mickelson said. "In addition, we believe it's simply irresponsible for Mr. Edmondson to make such speculative claims about the Locust Grove matter before the investigation has even been completed.
"Mr. Edmondson is desperate to win or settle a lawsuit that should never have been brought."
The bacterial outbreak last August was the largest in the nation's history for the rare E. coli strain O111. Chad Ingle, 26, of Pryor, died on Aug. 24, a week after eating at the restaurant. In addition, 341 people became sick and 72 were hospitalized. Several young children required dialysis after they became ill.
State Department of Health spokeswoman Lesley Bennett-Webb said the agency is conducting its own investigation and declined comment on the attorney general's findings.
She said her agency is finalizing its report in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control.
The agency took samples of water from the Country Cottage's well shortly after the outbreak and concluded it was unlikely that well-water contamination was the source of the outbreak.
"We did not find the causative agent in those water samples," Bennett-Webb said.
But Edmondson said that does not rule out the Country Cottage well as the source of the contamination.
"It's a highly likely source," he said. "Since you don't find it, does that mean it wasn't there at the time? They simply couldn't find it in the samples that they took."
The attorney general's report said samples taken by the Department of Environmental Quality found E. coli bacteria in the Country Cottage well, but not of the strain that sickened the people. However, some samples have not been typed as to strain, said Edmondson's spokesman, Charlie Price.
Price said seven private water wells were tested within three-quarters of a mile of Locust Grove for the attorney general's report said three tested positive for E. coli.