SPRINGDALE, ARK. -- Don Tyson kills 25 million chickens a week on his assembly lines, 10 times as many birds as there are people in Arkansas. The annual revenue of his firm, Tyson Foods, the largest in the state's dominant industry, is twice the size of the Arkansas budget. Those figures alone help explain a key equation in the state that Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton has governed for 11 years: Chickens equal political power.

Nowhere is that connection more evident than here in the rolling hills of northwest Arkansas, where Tyson is president of a $4 billion family business that is the world's leading chicken processing company. It is somehow fitting that Tyson, a colorful Arkansas character who wears a khaki uniform on the job, works in a suite precisely resembling the one Clinton yearns to occupy, a replica of the Oval Office with a desk modeled after Thomas Jefferson's.

The boom years for Tyson the chicken magnate parallel Clinton's time as a governor consumed with the cause of economic growth for his rural, impoverished state. How Clinton has dealt with Tyson and the powerful poultry industry during those years reveals much about the style and the substance of his five terms as governor.

It would be an overstatement to say that Clinton and Tyson could not have succeeded without each other -- for the most part their relationship has been of mutual benefit, helping Tyson expand his operations and Clinton ascend politically.

But critics of Clinton say the relationship has had serious costs for the state he governs, both to its environment and to the middle-class taxpayers who live with an inequitable tax system that gives breaks to industry while imposing sales taxes on such necessities as food.

And in a campaign where Clinton calls himself "an agent for change," his relationship with Tyson and the poultry industry reveals a more traditional figure, a governor comfortable with the cozy, one-of-the-boys interplay between big business and government, more interested in accommodation than confrontation, sometimes hesitant to challenge the state's entrenched economic interests.

In his desire to improve the economic climate, Clinton during the past decade has used tax breaks, development grants and at times lenient environmental regulations to turn the state into a comfort zone for industry, including some of the heaviest polluters.

Tyson alone received $7.8 million in tax breaks for expanding its existing plants and work force from 1988 to 1990, according to state records. Whether the assistance the Clinton administration gave Tyson had any impact on the company's decisions to expand is debatable.

When Tyson was deciding whether to build a new $40 million processing plant in Pine Bluff, the Clinton administration gave the city a $900,000 grant to build new roads and improve the infrastructure at the proposed site and granted Tyson tax credits for bringing new jobs to the area. Wally Gieringer, director of the Pine Bluff industrial foundation, said the governor's role was crucial.

"Without his approval and without his direct contact with the company on our behalf, I question whether we would have landed the plant," Gieringer said.

But John Tyson, Don Tyson's son and the poultry company's vice president, said in a recent interview that the tax breaks and infrastructure grant had nothing to do with the company's decision to locate in Pine Bluff rather than out of state. "It was based purely on geography," Tyson said. "Pine Bluff was in the right place. The tax credits didn't make any difference."

In an interview last week, Clinton said he was obsessed during that period with creating jobs. "The unemployment rate was high {about 9 percent}," he said. "I was concerned with putting people back to work."

His approach helped lower the jobless rate and paid important political dividends for him as well. Tyson Foods has provided free airplane rides for the governor and his wife, and its executives have helped him with thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and industry fund-raising efforts that fueled Clinton's reelection campaigns and his race for president.

"You've got to support the governor," Don Tyson said in a recent interview. "The family has donated to Bill and as an industry we're raising our fair share. I think we've all maxed out on him" -- meaning members of the Tyson family had all contributed the federal limit of $1,000.

The easy play between poultry leaders and the governor does not sit as well, however, with the families who feel they have been victimized by the pollution caused by chicken waste. Nearly half of the 600 miles of streams in the northwest part of Arkansas where the poultry industry is centered are considered so polluted by chicken and livestock waste that they are off-limits to swimming.

Virtually every tributary of the White River, a world-class trout stream in the heart of the Ozarks vacationland, is contaminated by fecal coliform, and many by nitrates, threatening the drinking water supply for 300,000 people, according to officials at the state's Pollution Control and Ecology Department. In five northwestern counties, chickens produce 500,000 tons of waste, known as litter, each year -- equivalent to the output of 4 million people.

Brownie Ledbetter, director of the Arkansas Public Policy Project, said the governor's attitude toward poultry companies and other big industries seems rooted in the cozy traditions of old-style southern politics.

"The corporate folks have dominated this state economically and politically since it was a territory. That is not Bill's fault," Ledbetter said. "What bothers me is he has amassed so much political capital over the years that he could use to change things, but he hasn't used it. He's just following the great southern economic development plan -- come to us, we have cheap wages, few unions, all the tax breaks you could want and lousy environmental regulations."

In response to such charges, Clinton said he has tried to balance the state's economic needs with environmental safeguards. He noted that in the same year that he pushed a series of manufacturing tax credits through the legislature, he also signed into law measures allowing the state to impose fines on polluters without going through the courts.

Big Business in State

While razorbacks is the nickname for the University of Arkansas' sports teams, chickens, not hogs, are the dominant animal in this state. The poultry industry accounts for more than half of Arkansas' agricultural value, one of every 12 private jobs, 18 percent of the grower chicks nationwide and more than half of the fast-food chicken products in the world. Tyson Foods alone uses as much water each day as the city of Atlanta. The industry as a whole is the state's leading user of utilities, trucks and paper products.

"Poultry," said Don Allen, director of the Arkansas Poultry Federation, "is to Arkansas what steel was to Pittsburgh."

The scene in Little Rock during legislative sessions leaves little doubt about the poultry lobby's clout. The federation's headquarters, known as "The Chicken House," is a favored hideout for state lawmakers after adjournment each day, a place where they shoot the bull while devouring chicken wings and deviled eggs. Allen said Clinton "drops by now and then."

The chicken connection is symbolized by the fact that a legislator, Sen. Joe Yates (R), is on the payroll of the poultry federation as director of industrial relations. Six lawmakers last year were guests of the federation for an all-expenses-paid golf outing out of state, state ethics records show, and four more were hosted by Don Tyson at a marlin-fishing vacation in Mexico.

Clinton and his wife, Hillary, have been treated to free airplane transportation by Tyson on nine occasions since 1989 -- eight recorded as business trips and one as personal.

There are no state laws proscribing Clinton's acceptance of such corporate largess, and Clinton said he has no qualms about the situation, which one of his aides described as "corporate hitchhiking." The governor's office does not have a plane of its own, Clinton said, adding: "Buying an airplane for the state of Arkansas has never been a political or budgetary option." As long as the trips are reported, Clinton said, "I do not think it is inappropriate."

James B. Blair, the Tyson Foods general counsel listed as the host for two of Clinton's trips, is Tyson's key connection to the governor. He and his wife, University of Arkansas political science professor Diane Blair, a Clinton campaign adviser, are longtime friends of the Clintons. The couples regularly vacation together at the Blair's summer cottage. In 1985, Clinton appointed Blair to the University of Arkansas board of directors, a state panel that he now chairs while also working for Tyson.

Asked whether he saw any appearance of conflict of interest in his relationship with Blair and Blair's dealings with the state, Clinton offered a one-word answer: "No." His press secretary, Mike Gauldin, was more expansive on the question.

"The thing in Arkansas that you keeping running into is that it's such a small state, a small town, really, that everybody knows everybody else; there is always a connection," Gauldin said. "Our feeling is that everybody knows Jim is Bill's close friend and that he works for Tyson and is on the university board, and as long as everyone knows it, there can't be anything secret or sinister going on."

Environmental Problems

The growth of the Arkansas poultry business has created problems potentially as large as its profits. Oceans of contaminated water used in plants where the birds are killed, plucked and packaged, for example, are chemically treated to varying degrees of cleanliness and then discharged directly into streams or municipal treatment plants.

But a greater environmental threat is caused by the way chicken farmers empty their cages and dump dry litter on cropland. Some farms in the state have become so saturated that new loadings of litter lie on the surface and quickly wash into streams. As a result, the streams are often teeming with fecal bacteria. More ominous is the presence in the water of high levels of nitrates known to cause blue baby syndrome. Nitrates also spawn algae, which reacts with chlorine in treated drinking water and can create cancer-causing byproducts.

The problem of poultry waste has exploded in recent years -- and tested Clinton's political will.

Even his critics concede that he has taken on the chicken barons more forcefully than any previous Arkansas governor. State regulators have written discharge permits for major chicken processors and forced the modernization of municipal treatment facilities to handle the heavy flow of plant wastes. As the state stepped up enforcement of pollution limits, Tyson Foods spent about $50 million on pollution controls for its plants in the state. In 1990, Clinton convened a task force to recommend ways of protecting streams and ground water from poultry litter.

But the critics say the reality of Clinton's program does not live up to his rhetoric. His administration spent relatively little to upgrade municipal plants and failed to enforce permit requirements of serious polluters. The task force, heavily weighted with industry members and supporters -- and, in fact, reconstituted by Clinton from an in-house industry panel -- has spent two years studying the problem of chicken litter without recommending a single remedy.

"The governor is a politician who likes to tell everybody what they want to hear," said Sam Ledbetter {no relation to Brownie}, an environmental lawyer in Little Rock. "But we're in the process of losing our surface waters in northwest Arkansas because of the poultry industry, and he hasn't said what we're going to do to clean it up."

One of Clinton's most telling encounters with the ecological dangers of poultry waste involved a Tyson Foods processing plant in Green Forest, a hamlet 65 miles from here near the Missouri border.

The problem originated years before Clinton first became governor in 1979 when the plant discharged such heavy volumes of waste into the town's treatment facility that it overflowed, allowing raw sewage to enter Dry Creek, which serves as a drainage ditch for the facility.

The state pollution control agency knew of the creek's fragile state -- its limestone floor was prone to sink. But after Green Forest officials made some improvements in sewage treatment, the agency re-licensed the facility in 1977 on condition that the town reach an agreement with Tyson to partially treat its wastes.

By the time Clinton entered office, Green Forest already was proving unable to handle Tyson's sewage load. The chicken plant accounted for 90 percent of the town's waste in the late 1970s and was growing rapidly. As the treatment facility became overloaded, town officials borrowed Tyson's equipment to siphon off sludge and dump it on local fields, according to a lawsuit filed by residents.

But despite the known risks of a sinkhole opening in Dry Creek, state officials did not enforce the original 1977 permit requirement that Tyson pre-treat waste before sending it to the Green Forest facility. No fines were issued, no legal action was taken to shut down the Tyson plant or the treatment facility and no pleas for federal help were made by Arkansas authorities.

The worst fears came true in May 1983, shortly after Clinton was elected governor for the second time. A sinkhole developed in Dry Creek, and through it partially treated sewage from the Tyson plant drained into the ground water at the rate of 1 million gallons a day.

Many residents of the low-income farming town drew their water from household wells and developed chronic dysentery. Steve Work, who owns a gift shop outside Green Forest, was told by a doctor that his symptoms resembled salmonella, a bacteria that can be transmitted by poultry. Work also noticed globs of grease in his drinking water. But he did not connect his illness to the ground water until an aquifer on a neighbor's property turned septic a year later, killing hundreds of fish in the once pristine spring.

"The buzzards were camped right below the stream. We went down to investigate and it smelled like sewage," he recalled recently. "If those fish hadn't died, I believe I would have."

A 'Disaster Emergency'

As Tyson Foods continued to overload the treatment system, state health officials documented the contamination of residential wells in the summer of 1984, and finally got Clinton to declare a state of "disaster emergency" in October -- 17 months after a section of Dry Creek's floor had collapsed and sucked in pollution.

Most residents were eventually put on a city water line, and the issue disappeared from the governor's agenda -- except for an unusual effort by Blair, the Tyson Foods counsel, to drag his friend the governor into a fight with state health department officials in 1987.

The officials had raised concerns that Tyson was dumping sludge from its Green Forest plant near the sources for some of the town's drinking water. Writing the state health director in May 1987, Blair noted that the location had been approved by the pollution control agency and suggested a "major meeting in the governor's office" to "get the turf problems ironed out."

The meeting never took place, according to Sam Ledbetter, the attorney in the case, and Tyson eventually stopped dumping the sludge. Blair did not return telephone calls to discuss the letter.

For Clinton, Green Forest showed the potential for trouble posed by chicken waste, a lesson in the politics of pollution. In May 1990, he appeared to get out front on the issue by convening the Animal Waste Task Force to recommend controls. But his appointments were so weighted in favor of industry and the agencies that regulate it that the prospect of real reform was "virtually doomed from the start," said Larry Snodgrass, one of three environmentalists on the 28-member panel.

The task force put aside chicken litter issues to focus on the less prevalent problem of liquid livestock waste. The proposal it submitted in January was less stringent in part than the voluntary measures promoted by the state in recent years. A subcommittee, headed by a poultry executive, will determine whether controls on litter should be voluntary.

In Don Tyson's oak-paneled suite, the symbiosis of politics and business is elevated to an art form. Appointing the stately replica of the Oval Office is poultry paraphernalia -- shiny brass doorknobs shaped like eggs, bronzed egg cartons in sculpture and a chicken head carved in the fireplace.

"I think Bill will make us a darn good president or I wouldn't support him," said the bantam-sized chicken tycoon. With the understated style that allows him to attribute his multibillion-dollar empire to luck, Tyson added about his relationship with Clinton: "Sometimes if I call him, he'll answer the call."