A coalition of conservation and community groups representing millions of people is suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for refusing to update national water pollution standards for slaughterhouses.
The EPA decision allows thousands of meat and poultry processing plants to continue using outdated pollution-control technology, which has been linked to the contamination of waterways across the US.
More than eight billion chickens, 100 million pigs and 30 million cattle are processed each year in more than 5,000 slaughterhouses in America. Around 4,700 of these slaughterhouses discharge polluted water into waterways including the Chesapeake Bay, the country’s largest estuary.
“[Current] EPA standards are either weak and outdated or nonexistent,” said Sylvia Lam, a lawyer with the not-for-profit Environmental Integrity Project, which filed the lawsuit on Wednesday.
“Cleaner plants have already installed technology to lessen the pollution they send into their local rivers and streams. By not updating these nationwide standards, EPA is rewarding dirty slaughterhouses at the expense of the public.”
The Clean Water Act requires the EPA to set industry-wide water pollution standards for slaughterhouses and to review those standards each year to decide whether updates are necessary in order to keep pace with advances in pollution-control technology.
In October 2019, the EPA announced it would not revise the federal water pollution standards for slaughterhouses that directly discharge processed wastewater into waterways. The EPA last revised these standards 15 years ago and more than a third of these slaughterhouses operate under guidelines that date back to the 1970s.
The agency also declined to create standards for plants that indirectly pollute waterways, such as by sending wastewater to sewage plants before it is discharged into rivers or streams.
“EPA’s failure to update pollution standards for slaughterhouses is illegal – and it allows a major industry to continue cutting corners at the expense of communities and the environment,” said Alexis Andiman, a lawyer with Earthjustice.
Slaughterhouses discharge wastewater contaminated with blood, oil and grease, and fats, which contains nitrogen and phosphorus pollution – pathogens – among other contaminants. This can cause algae blooms that suffocate aquatic life and turn rivers and streams into bacteria-infected public health hazards.