The Fern: JBS, under fire for taking Trump’s tariff bailout, is accused of polluting a Colorado river

The JBS SA logo is displayed at their headquarters building in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010. Photographer: Paulo Fridman/Bloomberg

by Leah Douglas | May 30, 2019

In a new lawsuit, environmental advocates say a Colorado beef-packing plant owned by JBS has been dumping polluted wastewater into a river for years. The suit comes as the Brazilian company is under fire for taking millions in President Trump’s tariff bailout payments. The lack of scrutiny by environmental regulators of the treatment plant is just another form of government handout to JBS, environmental advocates say.

The lawsuit focuses on Swift Beef’s Lone Tree wastewater treatment facility in Greeley, Colorado. Swift is owned by JBS USA. The plant treats wastewater from two beef slaughterhouses, and discharges the treated water into a tributary of the South Platte River. According to the complaint, JBS is violating its permit under the Clean Water Act by dumping wastewater that exceeds permissible toxicity limits.

“The environmental violations that we’re seeing at [this plant] are really just one more example of the ways that this company has been a bad actor and has been let off the hook for its violations and many problems,” says Tarah Heinzen, an attorney with Food & Water Watch, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “The facility has been discharging effluent that’s toxic to aquatic life for five years without facing any meaningful enforcement or being required to come into compliance.”

When the wastewater generated at Swift’s slaughterhouses reaches the treatment facility, it includes animal waste, E. coli, animal fat, meat, and blood, according to the complaint. It also includes a high concentration of salt, which is used for processing and preserving animal hides. The two slaughterhouses process as many as 12,000 animals and generate 3 to 4 million gallons of wastewater each day.

The complaint claims the plant has violated its Clean Water Act permit by dumping polluted water for years. The wastewater exceeded its permissible concentration of ammonia several times in 2018, and a test that measures wastewater for its toxicity to aquatic life found that the water exceeded permissible levels in every quarter of every year between 2014 and 2018.

A JBS spokeswoman said in an email that the company is “committed to being good neighbors in the communities in which we operate. That includes a focus on water quality at our Lone Tree facility. We recently invested a significant amount to buy and install new blowers that provide oxygen to the wastewater treatment process, allowing us to further improve our processes and ensure compliance.”

As for the criticism that the company is taking Trump tariff payments, the spokeswoman said, “We operate U.S. pork plants, processing American hogs raised by U.S. farmers — the true program beneficiaries. Like other companies in the program, our sole intent for participating was to support U.S. producer prices and help our American producer partners. It was not a bailout. We were paid for the work of our team members in the plant and the products we produced.”

Plaintiffs say that the failure of regulators to take meaningful action to address the plant’s wastewater problems is part of larger pattern with JBS.

“It’s just another example of the government giving handouts to the company, and in this case, it’s by not enforcing the law,” says Neil Levine, an attorney with Public Justice, another plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Because the state has taken a passive stance on the violation, there’s no urgency in fixing the problem. And meanwhile, the company has been operating under the status quo.”

JBS has been recently criticized for accepting more than $64 million in tariff relief funds as part of a USDA program meant to buoy farmers during Trump’s trade war with China. Critics have questioned why tariff bailout money is going to a foreign-owned company.

“The company is not hurting financially,” says Tony Corbo, a lobbyist with Food & Water Watch. In the fourth quarter of 2018, JBS reported more than $144 million in profits. It also just announced a $95-million expansion at its Nebraska beef-processing facility. “So how can they demonstrate that they’re being hurt by the trade war here in the U.S.?”

Members of Congress have joined in the chorus criticizing the USDA buy-up of JBS beef. On May 29, nine senators, including Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue raising concerns about the ongoing funneling of tariff relief money to foreign-owned corporations.

“[W]e urge you to stop making trade mitigation commodity purchases that benefit foreign-owned companies,” the letter reads. “[I]t is counterproductive and contradictory for these companies to receive assistance paid for with U.S. taxpayer dollars intended to help American farmers struggling with this administration’s trade policy.”

Other critical senators include Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro, of Connecticut, introduced a bill May 14 that would require tariff relief funds to be spent on domestically owned entities wherever possible.

JBS isn’t the only foreign-owned company that has come under fire for taking bailout funds. Pork giant Smithfield Foods, which is owned by the Chinese company WH Group, was set to receive $240,000 in bailout payments last year. But under pressure, the company returned the funds.

Concern over foreign buy-ups of U.S. farmland and food companies, long a target of some farm advocates, has reached the mainstream this year in part due to the attention focused on the issue by Democratic presidential candidates. Both Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders have described foreign ownership of farmland and food corporations as a possible national security threat.

Food & Water Watch has called for a congressional inquiry into the USDA’s handling of the administering of tariff-relief funds to JBS. The organization notes that in the past year alone, JBS’s domestic plants have recalled millions of pounds of beef products.

One of the company’s plants, in Beardstown, Illinois, has also been participating in a USDA pilot that transfers the responsibility of meat inspection from the USDA to company employees. The program, which also allows plants to raise their processing line speeds, has been roundly criticized by food-safety experts. The current head of food safety at JBS, Alfred V. Almanza, was previously USDA deputy undersecretary for food safety.

JBS is the largest meatpacker in the world and the second largest in the U.S. It bought Swift Beef in 2007, and also owns Pilgrim’s Pride, one of the four largest poultry processors in the U.S.