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John Rumpler

Clean Water Director and Senior Attorney, Environment America

Groups Say World’s Second-Largest Chicken Producer Polluted Florida River with Toxic Wastewater in Violation of Permit Limits

Environment America

Environment America today filed a citizens’ suit under the federal Clean Water Act against the second-largest chicken producer in the world, Pilgrim’s Pride, for dumping pollution into the Suwannee River from its poultry processing plant in Live Oak, Florida.  The group’s state affiliate alleges in its complaint that the company has committed 1,377 days of Clean Water Act violations since 2012, by discharging wastewater into the river that exceeds pollution standards by as much as triple the legal limits. 

“Here is one of the world’s largest meat companies dumping pollution into one of Florida’s most beautiful rivers,” said John Rumpler, clean water program director for Environment America. “This case is the latest example of how corporate agribusiness is threatening America’s rivers, lakes, and streams.”

The middle Suwannee River is famous for its 62 freshwater springs and is home to several state parks.  The Suwannee River State Park, near the Pilgrim’s plant’s pollution discharge point, is home to some of the best backcountry paddling in the state and welcomes more than 35,000 visitors yearly.  Downstream, the Suwannee River is also home to a dazzling array of wildlife – with the Lower Suwannee refuge as home to 250 types of birds, bald eagles, alligators, and manatees. 

Pilgrim Pride’s pollution contributes to low dissolved oxygen levels and toxic algal blooms, which are serious environmental problems plaguing the Suwannee and other Florida waterways.  Moreover, some of Pilgrims’ alleged violations are for toxicity – meaning they can disrupt the survival, growth, and reproduction of aquatic organisms.

Today’s lawsuit only addresses discharges that allegedly violate Pilgrim’s Pride’s permit.  But the total pollution from Live Oak facility is much larger:  the company poured 379,641 pounds of toxic pollution into the Suwanee River in 2014, according to data from U.S EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory.  

Such dumping fits into a broader pattern of pollution by Pilgrims’ Pride and its parent company, the Brazilian-based meat giant JBS.  As documented by Environment America in a report last summer, JBS’ supply chain in the U.S. generate 45 million tons of manure, and its processing plants (including this Pilgrim’s one in Florida) dumped more than 37 million pounds of toxic pollution into waterways from 2010 to 2014.  Today’s Clean Water Act suit is part of Environment America’s effort to reduce corporate agribusiness’s massive toll on America’s rivers and streams.

Sierra Club has also given formal notice of intent to sue Pilgrim’s Pride, and will join as a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit after the 60-day waiting period mandated by the Clean Water Act. 

“The Suwannee River is one of Florida’s jewels,” said Whitey Markle, a longtime member of the Suwannee-St. John’s Group of the Sierra Club.  “It is essential that we preserve this valuable river for the enjoyment of all Florida citizens and visitors to the Sunshine State.”

In fact, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has designated the Suwannee River as one of Florida’s 41 “Special Waters” (a water of exceptional recreational or ecological significance) within the category of Outstanding Florida Waters.

“As a biologist, I research the springs of the Suwannee River, and as a nature lover I lead canoe trips on the Suwannee, so it is clear to me that any harm to this special natural resource is shameful,” said Bob Knight, Environment Florida member and President of the Board at the Florida Springs Institute. “I want to be able to take my grandchildren paddling down the Suwannee with me, which means any further pollution needs to stop.”  

Environment Florida’s complaint seeks a federal court order requiring the Live Oak facility to comply with its Clean Water Act permit, as well as civil penalties against Pilgrim’s Pride to punish it for past violations and to deter future violations. 

Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation has operations in 14 states, Mexico, and Puerto Rico and is a supplier to KFC, Wal-Mart, Publix, and Wendy’s and generated a revenue of $7.9 billion in 2016. The Live Oak facility processes live poultry into fresh and frozen chicken meat products, and operates a broiler hatchery to produce chicks for distribution to growers. Pilgrim’s Pride is part of Brazilian company JBS S.A., the largest meat company by sales in the world.