JUSTIN JUOZAPAVICIUS

Associated Press

TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- While the meter continues to run on the high-profile attorneys hired for Oklahoma's federal pollution lawsuit against the Arkansas poultry industry, one thing's for certain: taxpayers won't be left holding the bag.

That's because the firms representing the state in the 2005 suit were hired on a contingency-fee basis, so they don't get paid unless the state wins.

It's turned into a huge gamble so far: Oklahoma's lawyers have spent at least $25 million trying to convince a judge that 11 poultry companies are to blame for mucking up a once-pristine watershed with tons and tons of chicken waste.

The state is still laying out its case in Tulsa federal court, and the trial could last several more weeks.

The defendants include Tyson Foods Inc., the world's largest meat producer, a company big enough to hire some of the best attorneys money can buy. Included in that lot is Washington lawyer Thomas C. Green, a barrel-chested intimidating presence, whose career spans the Watergate trial to the Iran-Contra investigation and beyond.

Green, a partner at Sidley Austin LLP, fired a blitz of questions so fierce at one of the state's witnesses last week that it caused her to become flustered, red-faced and, at one point, unable to cite the three areas Oklahoma had identified her as an expert in.

While the industry has been tightlipped about how much it has spent, Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson, said it's in the "millions of dollars."

Figuring out how much the lawyers will get if Oklahoma prevails will be tricky, because the judge has already prevented the state from recovering $611 million in monetary damages because it didn't name the Cherokee Nation -- whose lands lie within the watershed -- as a plaintiff.

There are other federal claims in the lawsuit that would allow the attorneys to recoup legal fees if Oklahoma wins, said Charlie Price, spokesman for the attorney general.

But a verdict in this case seems a long way off, as the 30-plus attorneys hired for the trial have stolen the show so far, gobbling up time with objections, trading barbs and drawing the ire of the judge, who stopped court for 10 minutes last week after one heated squabble.

Add up the legal firepower, and the millions of dollars spent so far on the closely watched case, and it comes down to a Goliath vs. Goliath grudge match.

Oklahoma's giant is South Carolina-based Motley Rice, the firm famously won a near-$250 billion settlement against Big Tobacco in the 1990s.

Attorney Fred Baker, part of the team that won that settlement, is in on Oklahoma's lawsuit, too.

The trial has been a slog so far.

"Both sides are fighting over every inch of ground," U.S. District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell remarked by the second day of trial, which began last month. "It's one vs. 30."

Oklahoma claims the companies are to blame for polluting the 1-million-acre Illinois River watershed, which straddles Arkansas and Oklahoma, with chicken waste, or litter.

For decades, farmers took the litter -- or the droppings, feathers and bedding -- from their chicken houses and used it as a cheap fertilizer on their land to grow other crops.

Oklahoma argues that runoff from fields contains harmful bacteria that threatens the health of the tens of thousands of people who raft and fish in the river valley each year.

The other defendants named in the lawsuit are Cargill Inc., Cal-Maine Foods, Inc., Tyson Poultry Inc., Tyson Chicken Inc., Cobb-Vantress Inc., Cargill Turkey Production L.L.C., George's Inc., George's Farms Inc., Peterson Farms Inc. and Simmons Foods Inc.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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