Analysis: Slaughterhouses still huge source of water pollution

Media Contacts

As new facilities are built and the threat grows, EPA fails to act

Environment America Research and Policy Center

BOSTON — As slaughterhouses reopen after outbreaks of COVID-19, their high volumes of pollution pose other risks to our health and drinking water. According to a new analysis by Environment America Research & Policy Center and Clean Water for All, these industrial facilities dumped more than 55 million pounds of toxic substances directly into the nation’s rivers and streams in 2018. 

“Pollution from slaughterhouses puts our health — and the health of our waterways — at risk,” said John Rumpler, Clean Water program director for Environment America Research & Policy Center. “Now more than ever, it is time for EPA to strengthen standards for these facilities and stop them from polluting our water, as required by the Clean Water Act.”

Slaughterhouse pollution contributes to a wide range of health and ecological threats — including dead zones, drinking water contamination, toxic algal outbreaks, fish kills and fecal bacteria that can make swimmers sick. Other findings in the analysis include:

  • Slaughterhouses are the largest industrial point source of nitrogen pollution. Several meat and poultry plants are located in the Mississippi River watershed, and scientists predicted last week that the nutrient-fueled Gulf of Mexico dead zone will extend 6,700 miles this summer.

  • Nearly all of the 55 million pounds of pollution reported to EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) were nitrates, which can cause blue baby syndrome — a condition that affects oxygen transport in the blood — in drinking water. 

  • The facilities’ wastewater also can contain fecal bacteria, pathogens and blood. Downstream drinking water systems try to disinfect the water, but the result can be toxic byproducts that pose other risks to human health.

  • In addition to the 367 slaughterhouses that dump directly into waterways, more than 1,000 of these facilities store their waste in lagoons or spread it on land, leading to other risks. In Delaware, for example, slaughterhouse wastewater sprayed on fields has polluted local drinking water wells with nitrates. In Illinois, wastewater pumped from a slaughterhouse lagoon led to a massive fish kill on the Illinois River.

Moreover, huge industry processing plants are also driving the proliferation of industrial-scale livestock operations, which threaten our waterways with millions of tons of manure.

Pollution control requirements for the largest meat and poultry processing plants haven’t been set since 2004, and an estimated 38 percent of meat and poultry facilities are still allowed to discharge pollution under EPA standards set in 1975. Yet the EPA decided not to update the standards last fall. Environment America and several other organizations are now in court to compel the agency to do so, as required by the Clean Water Act.

“Despoiling our water to process our food makes no sense,” said Rumpler. “EPA can and must do better, and even if it takes a federal court order to make it so.”