by Jacob Dick, Messenger-Inquirer | Dec 2, 2018
Enforcement advocates say it’s business as usual for meat processors
Between 2016 and 2018, the Perdue Farms chicken processing plant in Cromwell in Ohio County racked up 53 violations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for discharges into a public waterway and spent 644 days in violation.
It paid $13,750 in fines during that time, and it is unclear what kind of further punitive action might be in its future, even as Perdue continues to address its issues in meeting regulations. The real problem, according to environmental enforcement advocates, is the facility is operating like most similar processing plants across the country.
The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a nonprofit environmental organization that advocates for more effective enforcement of environmental laws, released a report in October tracking the progress of 98 large meat-processing plants – mostly poultry processors – that discharged into public waterways. Three-quarters of those plants, or 74 of 98, violated environmental regulations at least once during the report’s two-year time frame.
Eric Schaeffer, executive director of EIP and former director of civil enforcement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the report wasn’t aimed at finding the worst polluters among animal processors in the country but revealed violations as an industry norm because of the state of code enforcement.
“This industry is used to not having enforcement,” Schaeffer said. “It feels like the system is sagging. There is a built-in expectation that it will be ignored, or consequences won’t be significant. Occasionally, you will see a big penalty in an oil spill or fish kill.”
The Perdue plant in Cromwell earned the No. 6 spot on the report’s top 10 list for most effluent violations of the 94 plants studied, and was the seventh-highest discharger of oxygen-demanding substances (BOD) in 2017. BODs are biological pollutants that trigger fish kills when high levels are discharged in waterways.
Perdue Vice President of Sustainability Steve Levitsky offered a statement explaining the plant’s difficulties and what it was doing to become compliant.
“We were working with the commonwealth of Kentucky to address some of the past violations, but we found that operational changes to the existing wastewater treatment plant were not enough to maintain limits at the required levels,” Levitsky said in an email. “We then negotiated a Consent Agreement with Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, and we are now in the final stages of a $4.4 million wastewater treatment plant upgrade that will bring us into compliance November 1, 2018. We have no reason to believe that any of the violations of daily permit levels resulted in lasting environmental damage or put the community’s health at risk.”
According to records obtained from Kentucky’s Division of Water through an open records request, Perdue’s road trying to meet compliance has been a long one.
One of the first notices of violation given to Perdue by the Division of Water during the report’s timeframe came from an Aug. 12 inspection after it was determined the plant didn’t have a regular plan to test its wastewater treatment facility for unsafe levels of bacteria. Another came in March 2017 for a failure to submit a report on the system’s filtration system.
By July 2017, samples had been taken, and the DOW delivered a notice of violation describing seven regulations with which the plant had failed to comply, including the discharge of unacceptable levels of bacteria into a waterway. In December, DOW both sent letters acknowledging the company had met sufficient standards for some of its earliest violations and sent new violations for its failure to send monthly reports.
Perdue continued to miss monthly reports and received another notice of violation in February 2018 citing two issues with unsafe or improper discharges into a waterway. Similar violations showed up again in May and August 2018.
Lanny Brannock, spokesman for the DOW, said cases of compliance are a negotiation between the state and a violating entity to make sure the best outcome for public health and safety is reached, but it also means violators are put under a microscope once it’s clear there are compliance issues.
“We have a covenant with Perdue, and it’s in writing, so we will be monitoring,” Brannock said. “We have stipulated penalties in place that have to be paid whether you fix the situation right away or not. You’re still in trouble and you have to come into compliance.”
The $13,750 in fines may not be the last penalty Perdue will face for its actions in Kentucky or may not be completely related to their violations between 2016 and 2018. Because of the delay in processing violations and the nature of investigations, it is unclear if and when further fines will be levied.
While the agency does get tough when the law requires, Brannock said the DOW’s mission isn’t to look for lawbreakers, but to maintain safety for human health and the environment.
Schaeffer said most environmental enforcement agencies have shared similar philosophies, but weakened consequences and historically understaffed programs have meant industries have begun to look at penalties as a cost of doing business.
“I have been in negotiations where if you push, you have to question if it will be worth litigating,” Schaeffer said. “I understand that dilemma. The court system is slow, and I empathize with people on the frontline.”
Schaeffer said one of the solutions that could support enforcement efforts would be the strengthening of federal limits on wastewater from slaughterhouses.
In its report, EIP uses the poultry industry as an example of outdated standards. Poultry plants are currently prohibited from discharging wastewater with total nitrogen concentrations above 103 milligrams per liter, but more than half of plants report levels less than a third of that rate.
EIP also suggests the EPA should be willing to intercede in states where authorities are unwilling to enforce stricter guidelines in endangered areas, but that suggestion might be falling on deaf ears. The call for stronger enforcement comes at a time when the integrity of EPA leaders covering Kentucky has come into question.
The regional administrator of EPA’s Southeast region, Onis “Trey” Glenn III, announced his resignation in November a week after being indicted for charges of corruption. Glenn and former Alabama Environmental Management Commissioner Scott Phillips were indicted by the Alabama Ethics Commission for their roles as attorneys helping a company fight potential EPA actions directing it to clean up contaminated sites.
Glenn was appointed by former EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt, an outspoken critic of the EPA as Oklahoma’s attorney general that eventually stepped down as secretary in 2017 after documents surfaced detailing Pruitt’s alleged abuse of the office for personal gain.