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To Protect Nation's Waterways, New Lawsuit Challenges Trump Admin's Failure to Update Slaughterhouse Pollution Guidelines

"EPA is rewarding dirty slaughterhouses at the expense of the public."

The expanse of JBS pork processing plant sits at the northeast corner of Worthington, Minn., September 4, 2019.

The expanse of JBS pork processing plant sits at the northeast corner of Worthington, Minn., September 4, 2019. (Photo: Courtney Perry/For the Washington Post)

The Trump administration's decision not to issue upgraded regulations pertaining to pollution discharge from slaughterhouses into waterways sparked a lawsuit Wednesday from a dozen advocacy groups who say the move puts ecosystems and water supplies at risk.

"By not updating these nationwide standards, EPA is rewarding dirty slaughterhouses at the expense of the public," said Sylvia Lam, attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).

The lawsuit (pdf), filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, was brought by animal rights, conservation, and community groups including Cape Fear River Watch, Center for Biological Diversity, and The Humane Society of the United States.

At issue is the EPA's decision, published in the Federal Register in October, regarding "effluent guidelines." The federal agency said revisions were "not appropriate at this time."

The groups are challenging that assessment. The regulations for slaughterhouse emissions that go directly into waterways are in sore need of an upgrade, they said. It's also problematic, the groups added, that the emissions that first head to sewage treatment plants before being released into waterways have had no guidelines.

There's ample cause for concern.

The nation has thousands of slaughterhouses, many owned by deep-pocketed agriculture giants including Smithfield Foods and Cargill. The majority of these plants, about 4,700, can legally dump processed wastewater directly into waterways or into treatment plants.

An analysis out last year from EIP looked at nearly 100 large meat-processing plants and found that roughly three-quarters of them exceeded their permit limits for nitrogen, fecal bacteria, or other pollutants at least once in the time frame studied. The biggest culprit was the Beardstown, Illinois facility owned by JBS. That slaughterhouse dumped "1,850 pounds of nitrogen on average each day into a tributary of the Illinois River. That's the amount contained in raw sewage produced daily by a city with the population roughly the size of Evanston," the Chicago Tribune reported at the time.

Despite the breadth of the problem, federal guidelines haven't changed. The last regulations for the slaughterhouses that put emissions directly into waterways came 15 years ago, the groups said.

"Some of EPA's technological requirements for slaughterhouses date from the mid-1970s," said Earthjustice attorney Alexis Andiman. "Technology has changed a lot since then, and EPA needs to catch up."

Meat processing plants, as animal rights groups noted, have adverse impacts that extend beyond the environment.

"The pace and size of today's slaughterhouses create an extremely dangerous environment, in which animals suffer and toxic waste spews into our waterways," said Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which is part of the new lawsuit.

"This contaminates water for wildlife and surrounding communities at unprecedented rates," he said. "The government must do its job to protect people, animals, and the environment—and stop serving corporate interests at our expense."

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