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Slaughterhouses pose serious threat to clean water in meat production supply chain

Environmental Integrity Project highlights scope of water pollution from meat processing facilities.

Hogs are unloaded from trucks for processing at a meat packing plant in Marshalltown, Iowa. CREDIT: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
Hogs are unloaded from trucks for processing at a meat packing plant in Marshalltown, Iowa. CREDIT: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Major pollution caused by industrial farming captured the attention of environmental groups after Hurricane Florence caused animal waste lagoons in North Carolina to overflow yet again, contaminating water in surrounding communities.

In the meat production supply chain, though, the water pollution doesn’t end at the factory farms. After animals are transported from farms to meat processing plants, or slaughterhouses, water pollution remains a serious threat.

The nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) examined Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) records for 98 large meat-processing plants across the country that released more than 250,000 gallons of wastewater per day into waterways from January 2016 through June 2018. Looking at the records, EIP found that 74 of the plants had exceeded their permit limits for nitrogen, fecal bacteria, or other pollutants at least once.

Even more troubling is EIP’s finding that many of the meat processing plants that are not violating their permits are actually discharging more pollution than those plants with illegal pollution. The reason: their pollution limits are set so high.

EIP prepared the report, “Water Pollution from Slaughterhouses,” in conjunction with research from environmental law firm Earthjustice. Sixty-five of the 98 meat processing plants that EIP examined slaughter chickens, 15 process beef; 9, hogs; and the rest, other meat.

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“Slaughterhouses are another dirty link in the highly polluting industrial meat production chain,” Peter Lehner, director of sustainable food and farming program at Earthjustice, said Thursday in a statement.

“From polluted runoff from over-fertilized fields growing animal feed, to often-leaking manure lagoons and contaminated runoff at concentrated animal feeding operations, and to industrial slaughterhouses,” explained Lehner, “the way most of our meat is now produced impairs our drinking water and public health. We need to clean up every stage.”

According to the report, the most polluting slaughterhouse in 2017 was the JBS pork processing plant in Beardstown, Illinois, which released 1,849 pounds of nitrogen a day, on average, into a tributary to the Illinois River. That’s equivalent to the nitrogen in raw sewage from a city of 79,000 people, according to EPA data.

The second worst polluter was the Smithfield Tarheel Plant pork slaughterhouse in Tarheel, North Carolina, which discharged 1,759 pounds of nitrogen a day, on average, into the Cape Fear River last year.

During Hurricane Florence, Smithfield shut down the Tarheel Plant. At least four other pig processing plant were shut down as Florence approached. The storm did not lead to any unexpected wastewater discharges from the processing facilities.

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Hog farms and their open waste lagoons, on the other hand, were hit hard by Florence. Hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and Floyd in 1999 caused similar damage to hog waste lagoons in North Carolina.

On the enforcement side, Tyson Foods owns the most meat processing plants — 25 — with water pollution permit violations in 2017, according to the report. Far behind Tyson Food was Pilgrim’s Pride with seven violations, Sanderson Farms with six violations, Cargill with five violations, Wayne Farms with four violations, and Smithfield with three.

Environmental regulators, according to the EIP report, could be doing much more to stop the massive levels of wastewater pollution from meat processing plants across the country.

It’s been almost 15 years, for instance, since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) updated its limits for pollution levels from meat processing facilities. During that period, the industry has developed new technologies to reduce their pollution. But some companies, in order to remain competitive in the market, will not pay the extra money to upgrade their pollution controls if regulations do not require it.

Across the country, pollution limits “should be updated to reflect the industry’s leaders, not its laggards,” according to the report.

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For example, under the 2004 standards, the wastewater from poultry processors must not contain more than 103 milligrams of total nitrogen per liter of wastewater, based on average monthly discharges, or 147 milligrams per liter per day, and a monthly average biological oxygen demand of 16 milligrams per liter, or 26 milligrams per liter in any single day’s discharges.

Slaughterhouses are allowed to dump wastes into streams and lakes with more than two and a half times the concentration of total nitrogen found in raw household sewage. But the discharge monitoring reports filed by the companies with the EPA show that slaughterhouse wastewater can be made much cleaner, according to the report.

The EPA sets nationwide discharge limits for slaughterhouses. The federal Clean Water Action requires states to have additional pollution reductions when needed to restore waters that are so polluted they endanger aquatic life or limit public use.

On a press call Thursday, Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said he doubts the Trump administration would be interested in updating the pollution control standards for slaughterhouses. The EPA’s entire focus has been rolling back regulations, not strengthening them, he said.

The pro-industry regulatory environment for slaughterhouses also is disproportionately harming low-income residents and communities of color. According to the report, the pollution from many slaughterhouses fouls waterways in communities with a high percentage of Latino and African American residents.

Federal data show that almost half of the slaughterhouses are in communities with more than 30 percent of their residents living beneath the poverty line — which is more than twice the national level — and a third of the facilities are in places where at least 30 percent of the residents are people of color.

“This water pollution is really an environmental justice issue, because many of these slaughterhouses are owned by wealthy international companies, and they are contaminating the rivers and drinking water supplies of rural, often lower-income, minority communities,” Schaeffer said in a statement issued Thursday.

Some slaughterhouses send their wastewater to municipal systems, which then process the waste. In the report, EIP did not focus on these facilities; it researched only the big slaughterhouses that have pipes that discharge their waste directly into waterways.

Sixty of the 98 meat processing plants that the EIP studied are discharging into creeks or watersheds that states have already determined are impaired with pollution. States, however, have failed to develop cleanup plans and pollution limits to protect the waterways in two thirds of these cases.

“Lack of resources is no excuse — if needed, state agencies should collect fees from slaughterhouses and other major polluters to pay for the work needed to develop these cleanup plans,” the report says.

During the conference call, Schaeffer said many states lack resources to conduct environmental enforcement of polluting industries. With slaughterhouses, though, it doesn’t take much work to determine if a facility is breaking the law.

“You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to find these cases,” Schaffer said.

Companies that spend millions of dollars every year to stay in compliance with environmental law have no incentive to do so if their competitors can violate the same requirements for free. The large companies that dominate the meatpacking sector are successful because of their focus on the bottom line. Clean Water Act violations will not get their attention unless they cost real money, the report says.

Penalties and enforcement are rare, the EIP found in its research. At least 18 slaughterhouses among those studied received more than 100 violations per day from 2016 to 2018. But so far, just eight of those 18 have not paid any fines at all during this time period.

This lenient treatment of meat processing plants exemplifies the danger of politicians favoring cozy relationships with industry over regulations meant to protect public health and the environment.

Members of the meat processing industry are major contributors to politicians. Total contributions from the meat industry to federal candidates totaled more than $1.7 million during the 2014 campaign cycle, with 83 percent going to Republicans. The industry has given the party 79 percent of its more than $16.6 million in contributions since the 1990 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“The government will always respond to highly visible catastrophic events that get lots of publicity,” the EIP report says. “It is much less likely to impose serious fines for slow motion disasters that, year after year, clog waterways with pollutants that eventually make them unfit for public use.”