Environment America joins public interest groups in suing EPA to curb slaughterhouse pollution

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John Rumpler

Clean Water Director and Senior Attorney, Environment America

John Rumpler

Clean Water Director and Senior Attorney, Environment America

Slaughterhouses are dumping huge amounts of pollution into our nation’s waterways

Environment America

WASHINGTON — Twelve conservation and community groups sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today for its decision to allow thousands of meat and poultry processing plants to continue using outdated pollution-control technology, leading to the contamination of waterways across the country.

“Some of the world’s largest meat companies are dumping huge volumes of pollution into America’s rivers — pollution that contributes to toxic algae and puts our drinking water at risk,” said John Rumpler, Clean Water Program director for Environment America. “EPA must ensure that those who produce our food stop polluting our water.”

The Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice filed today’s lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond on behalf of Environment America, Cape Fear River Watch, Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, Waterkeepers Chesapeake, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Center for Biological Diversity, Comite Civico del Valle, Food & Water Watch, The Humane Society of the United States, and Waterkeeper Alliance.

Meat and poultry processing plants are huge sources of water pollution. A 2016 Environment America Research & Policy report found that over a 5-year period from 2010 to 2014, five large agribusiness companies discharged more than 250 million pounds of toxic pollution from their facilities into America’s waterways. Pollution from agribusiness facilities contributes to toxic algal outbreaks, fish kills, dead zones, drinking water contamination and fecal bacteria that can make swimmers sick.

“EPA’s national standards for water pollution from slaughterhouses are either weak and outdated or nonexistent,” said Sylvia Lam, Attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project. “It is well past time for EPA to crack down on this public health hazard. Cleaner plants have already installed technology to lessen the pollution they send into their local rivers and streams. By not updating these nationwide standards, EPA is rewarding dirty slaughterhouses at the expense of the public.” 

The federal Clean Water Act requires EPA to set industry-wide water pollution standards for slaughterhouses and to review those standards each year to decide whether updates are appropriate to keep pace with advances in pollution-control technology.

On October 24, 2019, EPA announced its decision that it would not revise the federal water pollution standards for slaughterhouses, and that it would not create standards for plants that send their wastewater to sewage plants before discharging into rivers or streams. This is despite the fact that EPA identified slaughterhouses as the largest industrial source of nitrogen water pollution without updated standards.

Yet the agency last updated pollution standards for the largest agribusiness facilities in 2004, while other slaughterhouses are only required to meet federal standards set 44 years ago.

“Some of EPA’s technological requirements for slaughterhouses date from the mid-1970s,” said Earthjustice attorney Alexis Andiman. “Technology has changed a lot since then, and EPA needs to catch up. EPA’s failure to update pollution standards for slaughterhouses is illegal—and it allows a major industry to continue cutting corners at the expense of communities and the environment.”

Many slaughterhouses are owned by large corporations, with the 100 top slaughterhouse companies each reporting to have received between $83 million and $40 billion in revenues in 2019. The five largest corporations– Tysons Foods, JBS USA, Cargill, SYSCO, and Smithfield Foods – each generated more than $15 billion in annual revenue this past year.

“Smithfield’s Tar Heel slaughterhouse northwest of Wilmington, N.C., is the largest pork slaughterhouse on Earth and discharges its waste just upstream from the drinking water intakes for hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians,” said Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper with the nonprofit group Cape Fear River Watch. “The fact that EPA is failing to protect drinking water supplies and ecosystems by allowing slaughterhouses like the one in Tar Heel to operate under extremely outdated guidelines is dangerous and irresponsible.”

“EPA has the authority and responsibility to stop slaughterhouses from polluting our water,” said Devon Hall, co-founder of the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help based in eastern North Carolina. “If EPA doesn’t do its job, who will?”  

Updated pollution standards could lead to significant improvements in waterways across the country, especially in areas where slaughterhouses are concentrated. The most technologically advanced slaughterhouses already release far less pollution than the dirtiest plants, proving that improved technology exists. Under the Clean Water Act, EPA must ensure that all slaughterhouses adopt up-to-date and effective technology.