ROSE, OKLA. — Thousands of poultry farmers have tied their fortunes to the success of the poultry industry, but their livelihood could be threatened by Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson's years-long litigation accusing a dozen Arkansas processors of polluting the Illinois River watershed with bird waste, according to The Associated Press. Depending on the outcome of a federal trial set for Sept. 21, similar environmental lawsuits could be filed nationwide against the multi-billion-dollar poultry industry.

It’s not clear what effect the litigation will have on the processors' operations, if any. But many farmers and residents in the dozens of small towns in Oklahoma dependent on the industry worry the companies could pull out of the state and threaten their way of life.

The million-acre river valley spanning parts of Oklahoma and Arkansas contains 1,800 poultry houses. More than 55,000 people in Oklahoma and Arkansas work in the poultry industry in one of the largest areas in the U.S. for producing broilers. Combined, they raised more than 8 billion lbs of turkeys and chickens last year.

Handling chicken waste has long been part of doing business in this watershed, AP relays. Farmers have taken clumps of bird droppings, bedding and feathers from the houses for decades and spread them on their land as an inexpensive fertilizer for other crops. Both states sanctioned this by issuing the farmers permits, and the industry says that no individual companies or farms have been accused of violating environmental regulations.

However, Mr. Edmondson claims the volume of the waste spread on the land — estimated at 345,000 tons per year — has wreaked environmental havoc. He charges runoff carries bacteria into lakes and streams, where it threatens the health of tens of thousands of people who boat and camp in the valley every year. He further charges the industry took the least expensive way out when it could have burned the litter as energy, processed it into pellets or even composted it until the pathogens died.

Agriculture is an easy target, responded industry spokeswoman Jackie Cunningham; other sources of pollution, such as small towns, golf courses, cattle ranches and nurseries, should also be taken into account, she added.