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Investigation Finds 75 Percent of Large Slaughterhouses Violate Water Pollution Limits

Tom Pelton

People don’t always think about the environmental impact of the food they eat -- and specifically, the water pollution created by the meat processing industry.

More than 8 billion chickens are slaughtered every year in the U.S., along with 100 million hogs, and 30 million beef cattle. These animals are processed in more than 5,000 meat processing plants, large and small.

I worked with my colleagues at the Environmental Integrity Project to examine the EPA and state records of the 98 largest of these slaughterhouses that discharge waste directly into waterways. Most are owned by large companies like Tyson’s, based in Arkansas; and Smithfield Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride, owned by international conglomerates based in China and Brazil.

What we found was that 75 percent of these slaughterhouses broke the federal Clean Water Act by exceeding the water pollution limits in their state permits at least once between January 1, 2016, and June 30, 2018. This included releasing excessive amounts of fecal bacteria, pathogens, and nitrogen into rivers and streams, according to federal and state records.

But there was very little enforcement of the law or penalties against polluters by states or EPA.

Eric Schaeffer is a former director of enforcement at EPA and executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project.  He noted that almost half of these slaughterhouses are in small, rural, communities, where more than 30 percent of their residents live beneath the poverty line.

“If you’re looking at polluting industries, just ask yourself: Where are they most likely to be located?” Schaeffer asked. “They are going to move to and operate in communities that tend to be lower income, and to speak bluntly, sometimes have less political power than upper middle class communities where you can expect the neighborhood is going to lawyer up and fight having a plant located near them.   So we’ve got a very unequal situation in America, where we have these pockets of heavy pollution.”

One of the worst pockets of pollution is here in Sussex County, Delaware, which has one of the highest concentrations of meat processing plants in America. The county has five poultry slaughterhouses, four of which have violated their water pollution control permits over the last four years, according to state records. And now a sixth plant is planned for construction.

On a recent afternoon, local resident Maria Payan stood at the gate of the Allen Harim Foods plant in Sussex County and watched as a flatbed truck, loaded with chickens in cages, rumbled past her into the slaughterhouse.

“Well, the impact is just becoming too much for the people to tolerate, too much for the environment to tolerate, too much for the private wells to tolerate,” Payan said.

Almost 700 county residents have filed a class action lawsuit against a Mountaire slaughterhouse in Sussex County. They claim it has contaminated local drinking water wells and made people sick by spraying millions of gallons of waste – includes feces, blood and guts from slaughtered chickens -- onto fields with homes right next to them.

In response to the lawsuit, Mountaire issued a statement that denied responsibility, saying in part: “Elevated levels of nitrates in Sussex County is a very common widespread environmental condition that has existed for many decades, way before the arrival of Mountaire.”

Court records, however, show that none of the homes uphill from the Mountaire slaughterhouse has nitrate levels exceeding the health limit. But at least 20 homes downhill from the plant have unsafe levels, with one monitoring well hitting nine times the legal limit for the contaminant.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.