Environment America announced today the filing of a proposed consent decree in federal court to settle a lawsuit against Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation for alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act at the company’s poultry processing plant in Live Oak, Florida.
If approved by U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Corrigan, the settlement would require Pilgrim’s Pride to make equipment upgrades, investigate the possibility of eliminating or significantly reducing all discharges to the Suwannee River, and pay what is believed to be the largest Clean Water Act penalty in a citizen enforcement suit in Florida history. More than $1 million of the Pilgrim’s penalty would fund a program to help nearby farmers reduce their pollution as well.
“This Pilgrim’s settlement gives the Suwannee River a lot to be thankful for,” said John Rumpler, clean water program director for Environment America. “At least for this one river, the world’s second-largest chicken company is moving from being part of the pollution problem to part of the solution.”
Pilgrim’s Pride is the second-largest chicken producer in the world. Over three-quarters of its stock is controlled by JBS USA, a unit of the Brazilian meat processing company JBS SA, the largest meat company in the world by sales.
The groups filed the lawsuit earlier this year to stop Pilgrim’s Pride from discharging illegal levels of pollutants into the Suwannee River, an “Outstanding Florida Water” that is home to 62 freshwater springs and several state parks. The complaint alleges that the company violated standards for:
- nitrogen, which can cause excessive algae growth;
- “specific conductance,” which can indicate high levels of chloride, nitrate or sulfate;
- “biological oxygen demand,” which can suck up the oxygen needed by aquatic organisms;
- “whole effluent chronic toxicity,” which is an indication that wastewater is toxic to, and can harm, aquatic life.
“Today’s settlement is a major step towards restoring the health of one of Florida's most beautiful rivers," said Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, Organizing Representative for the local Sierra Club chapter. “Not only will the settlement directly address illegal pollution from the Live Oak plant, but the significant penalty payment should deter other polluters in Florida from breaking our fundamental environmental laws.”
Filed in court today, the settlement terms would require Pilgrim’s Pride to:
- Conduct a comprehensive study on eliminating the plant’s wastewater discharge to the Suwannee River;
- Conduct a toxicity identification evaluation to address the cause of the plant’s toxicity violations;
- Conduct a water use and reuse study, an analysis of the plant’s water supply system, and various upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant; and
- Pay $1.43 million, of which $1.3 million would be used to create a Sustainable Farming Fund designed to improve soil, groundwater, and surface water quality in the Suwannee Basin, and $130,000 would be paid to the U.S. Treasury as a civil penalty.
“Our state officials were not doing enough to protect one of Florida's most important rivers so we stepped in as citizen enforcers of the Clean Water Act,” said Jennifer Rubiello, State Director of Environment Florida, a state affiliate of Environment America. “This great outcome demonstrates the importance of citizen lawsuits.”
Today’s settlement is part of Environment America’s effort to reduce the massive toll that corporate agribusiness is imposing on America’s rivers and streams. As documented by Environment America in a report last summer, large agribusiness companies are major sources of water pollution – both at their processing plants and through the grain and livestock production in their supply chains. Environment America hopes that the Sustainable Farming Fund in today’s proposed settlement can be a small first step in reducing the industry’s water pollution footprint.
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. The company 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.
Environment Florida and the Sierra Club were represented by Heather Govern of the Boston-based National Environmental Law Center, which represents citizen groups across the country in suits to enforce the nation’s environmental laws, and by Newton, Massachusetts-based attorney David A. Nicholas and Jacksonville, Florida attorney Andrew Bonderud.