Proposed meat, poultry plant wastewater standards stir up strong opinions

Meat and poultry sector says EPA changes underestimate cost and will result in closures.

Krissa Welshans, Livestock Editor

March 27, 2024

5 Min Read
Getty Images/ iStock

A published proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to revise the technology-based effluent limitations guidelines and standards (ELGs) for the meat and poultry products (MPP) point source category has brought strong opinions from meat and poultry industry stakeholders as well as environmental groups and public officials.

According to the EPA, the proposed rule would “improve water quality and protect human health and the environment by reducing the discharge of nutrients and other pollutants to the nation’s surface waters.”

EPA initially promulgated the MPP ELGs in 1974 and amended the regulation in 2004. It currently applies only to direct dischargers (those that discharge directly to a water of the United States), and only to about 150 of the 5,055 MPP facilities in the industry. Phosphorus is not regulated under the current ELGs. EPA says pollutants in the wastewater from MPP indirect dischargers, which are not currently regulated by the ELGs, can interfere with or pass through Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTWs). The agency further noted that research has shown communities near MPP facilities are likely to experience multiple environmental stressors, and in these communities, minority and low-income percentiles exceed national averages.

EPA is considering a range of options in the current rulemaking, including more stringent effluent limitations on total nitrogen, new effluent limitations on total phosphorus, updated effluent limitations for other pollutants, new pretreatment standards for indirect dischargers, and revised production thresholds for some of the subcategories in the existing rule. EPA also requested comment on potential effluent limitations on chlorides for high chloride waste streams, establishing effluent limitations for E. coli for direct dischargers, and including conditional limits for indirect dischargers that discharge to POTWs that remove nutrients to the extent that would be required under the proposed pretreatment standards in certain regulatory options. Each option would result in different levels of pollutant reduction and costs.

The estimated cost of EPA’s preferred option to reduce pollutant discharges by approximately 100 million pounds per year would be $232 million annually.

The Meat & Poultry Products Industry Coalition (MPP), which is comprised of the US Poultry & Egg Association, the Meat Institute, North American Renderers Association, National Chicken Council, National Pork Producers Council, National Turkey Federation, and the American Farm Bureau Federation, submitted comments to EPA asking it to withdraw the proposed rule for many reasons, including that the agency not only underestimated the total cost of the changes but that the proposed rule failed to consider the facility closures and the direct, indirect and associated job losses that would likely occur as a result.

Given the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent efforts to diversify the processing industry, create stable, well-paying jobs in rural regions, increase producer income and provide the nation’s consumers with a more resilient food supply chain, the MPP coalition believes “the proposed ELG would thwart the Biden Administration’s efforts and limit or reverse these outcomes for small processors, rural job creation, producer livelihoods and a resilient food supply chain.”

Further, the MPP coalition said it objects to EPA’s rulemaking process, “which has not provided the industry with a sufficient opportunity to evaluate critical information and provide meaningful public comment on the proposed rule.” 

The coalition, calling on EPA to either extend the period for review and comment or withdraw the proposed rule completely, said the agency did not disclose for review hundreds of pages of detailed analyses in its development documents and more than 600 other supporting documents in the rulemaking docket until after the proposed rule was published in the Federal Register.

Aside from that, the group said the proposed rule is unnecessary because the MPP industry is already effectively regulated by federal, state and local programs. As such, “the rule would be harmful to many large and small municipalities and communities by putting an added burden on them with little or no corresponding benefit.”

Further, the coalition argued that the proposed rule would also upset the current successful relationship between MPP indirect dischargers and the POTWs they discharge to.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the issue, 45 community, environmental, and animal rights organizations filed public comments with EPA, pressing for stronger wastewater regulations from MPP facilities.

“EPA’s preference for weak slaughterhouse regulations privileges the health of a polluting industry over that of frontline communities and our nation’s waters. To adopt anything less than the most stringent clean water protections in the agency’s final rule would be a missed opportunity and a big mistake,” said Food & Water Watch attorney Dani Replogle.

Sarah Kula, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, applauded EPA for “finally taking action” to strengthen standards for some of the largest plants, noting that the meat and poultry industry has benefited from lax water pollution standards for years. However, she said EPA’s proposal falls “far short of what the Clean Water Act requires and exempts thousands of polluting plants that put downstream communities and our waterways in harm’s way.”

She added, “EPA must require that these plants install modern water pollution controls and clean up their act.”

California Attorney General Rob Bonta, along with the attorneys general from Wisconsin, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Oregon, also submitted a comment letter supporting the EPA’s proposed rule. The attorneys generally commended the rule and also recommended that stronger standards be adopted that apply to more facilities.

“For too long, our nation’s waters have been severely polluted and have posed significant health risks to communities across this country, particularly those of color,” said Bonta. “That’s why I, alongside other attorneys general submitting this letter, support the EPA’s rule, which reduces some water pollution from meat and poultry processing facilities, but strongly urge EPA to go farther and adopt the most protective option it proposed, along with federal funding to support compliance. By prioritizing environmental justice and taking action to protect the health and well-being of all residents, we can create a more equitable and sustainable future for generations to come.”

About the Author(s)

Krissa Welshans

Livestock Editor

Krissa Welshans grew up on a crop farm and cow-calf operation in Marlette, Michigan. Welshans earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science from Michigan State University and master’s degree in public policy from New England College. She and her husband Brock run a show cattle operation in Henrietta, Texas, where they reside with their son, Wynn.

Subscribe to Our Newsletters
Feedstuffs is the news source for animal agriculture

You May Also Like