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EPA sued over slaughterhouse water standards

Environmental groups seek revised standards for slaughterhouses that discharge pollutants.

The federal Clean Water Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency 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 Wednesday, 12 groups sued EPA for its decision not to update national standards restricting water pollution from slaughterhouses.

On Oct. 24, 2019, EPA announced its decision in the Federal Register that it would not revise the federal water pollution standards for slaughterhouses that discharge processed wastewater directly into waterways and that it would not create standards for plants that send their wastewater to sewage plants before discharging into rivers or streams.

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

EPA last revised standards for slaughterhouses that discharge polluted water directly into waterways 15 years ago, the groups stated, noting that more than a third of these slaughterhouses are still operating under guidelines that date back to 1974 or 1975.

“EPA’s national standards for water pollution from slaughterhouses are either weak and outdated or nonexistent,” EIP attorney Sylvia Lam said. “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.”

EPA has never set standards for slaughterhouses that send their waste to sewage treatment plants before discharging into waterways, even though these slaughterhouses make up a substantial portion of the industry.

“Some of EPA’s technological requirements for slaughterhouses date from the mid-1970s,” Earthjustice attorney Alexis Andiman said. “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.”

In a report released in October 2018, EIP found that the average slaughterhouse discharged more than 330 lb. of nitrogen per day in 2017 – equivalent to the amount of pollution in untreated sewage from a town of 14,000 people. About two-thirds of the 98 slaughterhouses studied by EIP discharge to waterways that are impaired by one or more pollutants found in slaughterhouse wastewater. At least 66 of the 98 plants surveyed by EIP are owned by companies that each reported more than $2 billion in annual revenues.

Meat processing plants discharge water contaminated with blood, oil and grease and fats. This wastewater contains nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, pathogens and other contaminants. When released into waterways, pollution from slaughterhouses can cause algae blooms that suffocate aquatic life and turn waterways into bacteria-laden public health hazards, EIP noted.

Waterkeeper Alliance senior attorney Kelly Hunter Foster added, “EPA acknowledges that harmful algal blooms from uncontrolled nitrogen and phosphorus pollution are a major problem in all 50 states – a problem that can sicken or kill people exposed to extremely dangerous toxins, destroy fisheries and decimate local economies. Slaughterhouses are a major source of this pollution; EPA must take action to protect the public from these dangerous discharges.”

A release from the plaintiffs stated that updated pollution standards could lead to significant improvements in waterways across the country, especially in areas where slaughterhouses are concentrated, such as eastern North Carolina and portions of Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania. “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,” the groups said.

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