USF professor at center of Arkansas pollution debate

There's a mystery like something out of the TV crime series CSI unraveling in a courtroom in Tulsa, Okla. Only this one entails contaminated water, poultry farms, hundreds of thousands of tons of chicken manure and the testimony of a University of South Florida biologist.

Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson claims that eight big chicken producers, including giant Tyson Foods Inc., are polluting waterways and endangering the public's health by spreading chicken litter in a watershed that straddles the state's border with Arkansas.

The poultry companies say there's no proof anybody is getting sick, chicken manure is far cheaper than commercial fertilizer and the fecal bacteria in Oklahoma's waterways could be coming from any number of sources.

Countering the last argument is Valerie Harwood, an associate professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, who is acting as a consultant to Oklahoma's attorneys. Collaborating with a lab in Idaho, she developed a bacterial biomarker specific to poultry litter that is being entered as evidence for the first time in court.

In a hearing in late February, Harwood testified that this biomarker shows bacteria-laden manure from chickens has leached from farmers' hay fields into ditches, wells and waterways in Oklahoma.

"My opinion is that the land application of poultry waste is a major contributor to bacteria levels in the Illinois River Watershed," she said during the hearing on whether such use should be stopped.

Harwood's claim triggered intense questioning by Jay Jorgensen, an attorney for Tyson — at $27-billion in annual revenues, a company as large as any in Florida — which accounts for about 50 percent of the 1,800 poultry houses in the watershed.

Jorgensen noted that earlier attempts at bacterial source tracking had high error rates. He criticized Harwood's new poultry litter biomarker, calling it untested and unreliable.

"Does this judge want to be the first one to accept it?" Jorgensen asked recently, saying Harwood's claim is "absolutely essential" to the state's case. "Without it, there's no link that shows the bacteria found in the water is from poultry and not from the huge number of cattle, deer and humans in the same area."

Back in her lab at USF, Harwood reflected on her initial experience as an expert witness. Her dry data suddenly became kindling in the fight between an aggressive attorney general and powerful poultry interests in a neighboring state.

"You really put your reputation as a scientist on the line,'' said Harwood, whose consulting fees were $250 an hour, compared with $350 to $400 for scientists hired by the poultry industry. "I wouldn't do it unless I strongly believed that what I was saying was important and true."

• • •

Harwood, who is 49 and favors well-worn sweaters, jeans and sneakers, is an unlikely linchpin in a high-stakes lawsuit. A native of upstate New York, she became involved in cutting-edge water-quality research almost by accident. After earning a bachelor's degree in French and realizing there were no jobs in the field, Harwood returned to the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. A professor opened her eyes to the invisible world of microbiology, leading to a second degree in biology.

"I realized there's so much cool stuff going on that you can't see," said Harwood, known to colleagues as Jody.

When marriage to a Navy guy meant relocation to Virginia, Harwood earned a doctorate in biomedical sciences from Old Dominion University and Eastern Virginia Medical School.

Finishing her dissertation in 1992, Harwood did postdoctoral work at the University of Maryland's Center for Marine Biotechnology in Baltimore. "I was studying organisms with great scientific interest, but no obvious public health benefit,'' she said.

That changed after she landed her first faculty job at the University of North Florida in 1995. As UNF's only microbiologist, she met students and local environmental groups working on water-quality issues.

"It was the combination of water, public health and ecology that really spoke to me," she said. She joined USF's faculty in 1998.

• • •

A few days after Harwood's testimony in Tulsa, the judge told the state it faced an "uphill climb" persuading him to consider her research. Oklahoma's attorney general downplayed the importance of Harwood's testimony, saying the state had other evidence that the contamination came from chickens.

The hearing on the preliminary injunction is expected to end this week. The state is asking the judge to act before the start of spring planting and summertime use of the waterways. The opposition says chicken waste has been applied to fields in the watershed for 50 years and there is no emergency. A full trial is scheduled for 2009.

Harwood had only one comment on the legal squabble surrounding her research. "I wouldn't go in the Illinois River," she said.

Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

What's the

dispute about?

In 2005, Oklahoma's attorney general sued eight poultry companies, saying their use of chicken manure as fertilizer pollutes the Illinois River Watershed on the border with Arkansas. (See the river and tributaries below.)

Valerie Harwood: a leading tracker of microbes

Since joining USF's faculty in 1998, Harwood has become one of the leading researchers in the emerging field of microbial source tracking, also known as MST. For decades, scientists have been able to identify dangerous levels of bacteria in water that can cause skin irritations and gastrointestinal distress to swimmers and boaters. With MST, scientists are developing ways to track different kinds of bacteria back to their source.

"That's important, because if you know you have contaminants but don't know the source, how do you remediate?" Harwood said. "And to what extent do you know if public health has been impacted by this bacteria?"

Working with a team at USF that includes both graduate and undergrad students, Harwood has applied her research to several local projects. Last year, her group tracked the source of E. coli bacteria responsible for repeated closings of Ben T. Davis beach off the Courtney Campbell Parkway.

Using biomarkers for human fecal bacteria developed by her lab and others, they traced much of the pollution to portable toilets next to a seawall and a broken sewer pipe.

Harwood's lab is working with Florida regulators to test water quality in six watersheds in Hillsborough County. She is also involved with a federal project to find human biomarkers for testing water in the Gulf of Mexico.

Don Stoeckel, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Columbus, Ohio, said MST research is being done by Harwood and about two dozen other researchers nationwide.

"What's so exciting is that now we can deliver answers about the type of animal fecal contamination and target the remedy," he said.

Scott Edwards, legal director of Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit group in Irvington, N.Y., puts it more bluntly.

"Anything that pinpoints who the bad actors are as concisely as possible is helpful," he said.

Kris Hundley

By the numbers

1-million

acres

in the Illinois River Watershed

347,000

tons

of poultry litter spread in the watershed

1,800

poultry houses

in the watershed

140,000

people

who use the Illinois River in Oklahoma for recreation

each year

What's the USF Professor's role? Valerie Harwood, left, has provided key testimony for the state with a newly developed biomarker that let her track bacteria from poultry houses in Arkansas to Oklahoma's waterways. More about

her expertise, Page 5D

What's the status of the case? Oklahoma wants the federal judge to halt the application of poultry waste before the spring planting season, citing imminent danger to public health. A hearing on the request is expected to end in Tulsa this week.

USF professor at center of Arkansas pollution debate 03/08/08 [Last modified: Saturday, March 8, 2008 5:01am]

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