According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assessments, water pollution from the meat industry poses an urgent problem. The agency recently reported that more than half of the country’s rivers and streams are in poor condition due to nitrogen and phosphorous pollution from agriculture, which later contributes to dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. Much of that pollution flows off farm fields, but the EPA’s data also shows the facilities that slaughter animals and process meat are the leading industrial source of phosphorous pollution and the second highest source of nitrogen.
However, tackling the problem won’t be straightforward. A new EPA proposal to significantly reduce water pollution from slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants is facing backlash from the meat industry as well as environmental groups, with one side expressing concerns about increased costs and the other worried that the agency may choose significantly weaker rules to minimize financial impacts on the industry.
“EPA’s continued failure to stand up against industry pressure ignores and perpetuates the potentially devastating impacts of industrial animal agriculture on our communities.”
In 1974, after the Clean Water Act was signed into law, the agency tried to tackle water pollution from meat processing for the first time. In 2004, it made a minimal update, but the current limits only apply to about 150 of the more than 5,000 facilities in the country, and they address nitrogen only, with no constraints on phosphorous. That lax approach to regulation prompted a lawsuit filed in 2019 by environmental groups, which then prompted the agency to begin the process of revising the standards in 2021.
However, after at least two years of work, instead of presenting one plan to bring the regulations in line with what the Clean Water Act requires, the EPA provided three options along a continuum. Now, the agency is taking public comments before deciding on which path to take.
Option 3, the most restrictive, would prevent 76 million pounds of nitrogen and 20 million pounds of phosphorous from entering waterways; option 1, the weakest, would prevent 9 million pounds of nitrogen and 8 million pounds of phosphorous.
Less pollution would be stopped in option 1 primarily because the rules would not apply to smaller processing plants, which currently send their wastewater to public treatment plants before it enters waterways. And the EPA has stated that plan is its “preferred” option, because stricter regulations of those plants could clash with the Biden administration’s recent efforts to reduce concentration in the industry by supporting smaller, independent meat processors. Based on an economic analysis included in the proposed rule, its analysts predict 53 facilities could close under option 3.
At a public hearing at the EPA’s headquarters last week, Jon Elrod, an executive vice president at Darling Ingredients, testified that the stricter options would hurt the company’s smaller facilities, many of which are located in metropolitan areas and “could make it impossible for some facilities to continue to operate.” Darling is a rendering company that processes meat industry byproducts, with annual revenue just under $7 billion in 2023.
After Elrod, environmental advocates stepped up to the podium one by one to counter that argument and push the agency toward option 3.
“We at Waterkeepers’ Alliance and our supporters are deeply concerned that EPA is proposing to exempt most slaughterhouses and rendering facilities from updated water pollution control standards,” said Jacqueline Esposito, the nonprofit’s director of advocacy. “EPA’s continued failure to stand up against industry pressure ignores and perpetuates the potentially devastating impacts of industrial animal agriculture on our communities.”
Sarah Kula, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, told Civil Eats that by her reading, the agency’s decision to even consider business impacts while setting pollution limits is outside the scope of what it can do under the law. While the EPA contends that it’s allowed to consider other factors, Kula said that is meant to apply to other things within their purview, such as environmental justice, not entirely different goals outside of the work the agency is tasked with.
Many of the advocates also noted that while industry players have said the rules are not needed for the smaller plants since the water already goes through a public treatment plant, the EPA’s analysis found that most of those public treatment facilities lack technology to remove nitrogen or phosphorous. As a result, they found meatpacking plants “may be causing or contributing” to high rates of permit violations at those facilities.
Advocates also highlighted the agency’s findings that the technology needed to reduce processing plants’ nutrient pollution is already available and being used successfully, resulting in pollution well below what the rules would require.
Many of the meatpackers, however, say even option 1 is too restrictive, and the industry is pushing back forcefully.
At the public hearing, representatives from JBS, which operates more than 50 slaughter and processing plants that could be subject to the new regulations, sat quietly, listening. A week earlier, in an online hearing, industry speakers asked the EPA to extend the comment period on the proposal, echoing a request from the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) the industry’s largest trade group.
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Author: Lisa Held