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."
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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.
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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 email@example.com or (727) 892-2996.