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After four years, the EPA finally has a deadline to restrict water pollution from slaughterhouses

water undergoes purification
Image Credit: Wix

Back in February, a meatpacking plant known as the Farmer John slaughterhouse, owned by the largest pork company in the world, closed. Reportedly, it was because of the rising costs of doing business in California, but the slaughterhouse had been the target of animal rights, environment, and environmental justice community and activist groups for years.

It had also been the target of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Prior to closing, in 2022, the slaughterhouse was fined over $230,000 in penalties due to stark Clean Air Act violations.

However, as the environmental law group, Earthjustice, reports, the EPA hasn’t been nearly as tough on water pollution violations from these meatpacking companies.

The Clean Water Act obligates the EPA to review existing regulations for water pollution annually to keep pace with evolving technologies. Despite the rules, Earthjustice, reports the agency hasn’t done so in at least 19 years.

But due to a May court win by Earthjustice and its co-council, the Environmental Integrity Project, that’s all about to change.

Prior to Farmer John’s closing, the slaughterhouse was reported to be the largest meat packing plant in the state, and according to Earthjustice, it is one of at least 27 meat facilities located in or around Vernon, California, a small industrial city, that is 90% of color, with an 83% Latino population.

You’ve probably read enough of these stories to know where this is going.

In addition to slaughterhouses, meatpacking districts also encompass animal rendering plants that take animal parts and carcasses from slaughterhouses, butcher shops, and supermarkets and render fats and proteins to be used in pet food, fertilizer, soap, and other products.

The result is a stench of carcasses and spoiled meat that has plagued Southeast Los Angeles for years.

27 red dots clustered in groups on a map of Vernon, CA
The 27 facilities across Vernon. Data from the EPA // Graphic credit: Earthjustice

In 2017, after three years of pushback from the rendering companies and what community leaders called “decades” without government intervention, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) board unanimously voted in favor of new air quality regulations following testimonies from residents across the county about the putrid stink and its respiratory health effects.

Still, wasn’t just the meat funk that was plaguing residents. As reported by the L.A. Times, for the heavily industrialized city of Vernon, the rotten air quality from the slaughterhouses was just one blow; combined with other polluting businesses dependent on fossil fuels, diesel trucks constantly roaming in and out the neighborhoods, and decades of lingering lead contamination from a now-shuttered battery recycling plant.

Despite the win, SCAQMD’s regulations weren’t enough, as they targeted air pollution, but not the “dead zones” caused in waterways.

According to a 2018 study by the Environmental Integrity Project that analyzed 98 large slaughterhouse facilities, most produce an average of 331 pounds of nitrogen a day, the equivalent of the nitrogen pollutants in the untreated sewage of 14,000 people.

However plants on the higher end of the spectrum, like the JBS USA pork processing plant in Beardstown, Illinois, produce nearly 2,000 pounds of nitrogen a day which is equal to the load of raw sewage from a city of 79,000 people.

This leaves more than 60% of the waterways that suffer pollution from the biggest slaughterhouses too polluted for drinking, swimming, or fishing, which according to the EPA, 74% of which are located within one mile of under-resourced, low-income, and/or communities of color.

The Center for Biological Diversity reports that the toxins in the air can be so bad, residents may be left unable to open windows or even go outside.

Despite the scale of the problem, pollution control and wastewater treatment technology is widely available and have come a long way since the slaughterhouse pollution rules set by the EPA in the mid-1970s. However, without rules, the technology can’t have the impact it’s intended to.

In fact, according to a press release by the Center for Biological Diversity, 95% of these facilities are not subject to any federal water pollution standards at all, leaving only a portion of the remaining 5% percent to be governed by these 1970s-era standards.

That’s why in 2019, Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project, took the EPA to court. In 2021 the agency vowed to strengthen regulations, but it wasn’t until this year that a timeline was actually set.

On Wednesday, May 3, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia approved an agreement between the EPA and the groups suing the agency to finally update water pollution restrictions from slaughterhouses and animal rendering facilities. Now, over the next two years, the EPA must finalize the regulations, with a firm deadline of August 2025.

Proposed standards are due before the end of 2023, which will be made considering public comments sent to the agency.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Cape Fear River Watch, Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, Waterkeepers Chesapeake, Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Center for Biological Diversity, Environment America, Food & Water Watch, The Humane Society of the United States, and Waterkeeper Alliance.

​​“The evidence is clear – slaughterhouses are mega polluters,” Tarah Heinzen, legal director at Food & Water Watch said in a statement.

“Yet, for decades, EPA has allowed these industrial facilities to excessively pollute our nation’s waterways. It took a lawsuit for the federal government to agree to update its inadequate standards.”

In addition to the environmental injustices on the human side, these facilities are the leading industrial source of the chemical element phosphorus. None of the EPA’s existing regulations limit discharges of phosphorus and while essential, excessive amounts create toxic algae “dead zones” of aquatic life.

On top of outdated regulations, a national standard for the vast majority of these meatpacking plants doesn’t even exist, “even though the EPA has known for decades that—without adequate pretreatment—pollutants in slaughterhouse wastewater pass through many treatment plants into our nation’s rivers and streams,” Earthjustice’s Alexis Andiman, Manny Rutinel, and Mustafa Saifuddin wrote in their recent release.

Once actually enacted, the EPA’s regulations can be strong. Over about the last 30 years, the EPA’s regulations have resulted in national concentrations of air pollutants improving by 73% for carbon monoxide and over the last 10 years, 86% for lead.

However, without partnerships between federal and local regulators, it’s hard to get things done on a regional level. Just last year, California regulators threatened to sue the EPA over a lack of federal intervention as they attempted to control smog in the region.

Despite the new tough local regulations and fining, operations in Vernon have violated those set by the SCAQMD, leading to one wayward animal rendering plant, Baker Commodities, being forced to close in 2022 after repeat offenses.

The company went on to open a $200 million lawsuit against the SCAQMD over the closing in October, and while it appears the Vernon location has halted collection services as of last year, even if it does close, the issue is not isolated. Much like Farmer John’s owner, Smithfield Foods, the company covers the entire country.

a U.S. map is riddled with red dots representing the 7,608 slaughterhouses and rendering facilities across the country. most are clustered in the east and midwest with a group along the west coast
7,608 slaughterhouses and rendering facilities across the country. Data from the EPA. Graphic Credit: Earthjustice

Plus, like Vernon’s 27 meatpacking plants, these locations are usually located amid a herd of other slaughterhouses, rendering facilities, and concentrated animal feeding operations, commonly known as CAFOs. In Duplin County, North Carolina, for example, 41 CAFOs are located within only three miles of each other, Earthjustice reports.

According to Robin Broder, acting executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, one of the groups the lawsuit was filed on behalf of, violations are completely normal.

“Scattered throughout the Chesapeake region, there are several slaughterhouses that have discharged high levels of pollutants into our local waterways, violating their permits with little or no enforcement,” Broder said in a statement.

“From the banks of the Susquehanna River to Maryland's Eastern Shore to the Shenandoah Valley, slaughterhouses and rendering plants have functioned on outdated and inadequate permits, avoiding upgrading their facilities and discharging excessive and dangerous pollution into our local waterways,” she said, adding the organization is “pleased that our communities will now know when they can expect these facilities to start using technology that will protect human health and ecosystems.”

But according to the groups, necessary action doesn’t end with new federal regulations.

“It’s encouraging that the EPA has promised to slash the meatpacking-industry pollution that has been allowed to foul waterways, kill wildlife, and unjustly harm nearby communities for far too long,” Hannah Connor, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement.

“The next step is to increase oversight to ensure that slaughterhouses are actually held responsible for the ecological and health problems caused by the hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic, untreated animal waste they generate,” she said.

Moreover, the Center for Biological Diversity also recommends slaughter facilities must be reduced by scaling down the number of animals processed.

Of the billions of animals slaughtered a year, Americans throw out 26% of meat, poultry, and fish at the retail and consumer level. The U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture and the EPA have a goal to halve food waste by 2030, and with the number of animals slaughtered every year, Kenny Torrella, staff writer for Vox’s Future Perfect, breaks down how reducing the slaughter count to better align with what’s actually consumed can make a hog-sized dent.

“By addressing overconsumption and unsustainable demand for meat, dairy, and seafood, the strain on the system of slaughterhouse waste and pollution of natural resources can be reduced,” the Center writes, closing its report.

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