In a victory for clean water, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced its intent to publish updated water pollution control standards for slaughterhouses and animal rendering facilities by August 2025, following a lawsuit filed by community and conservation organizations late last year. Proposed standards are due before the end of 2023.
“For decades, EPA’s weak and outdated rules have given slaughterhouses a free pass to pollute America’s waterways with nitrogen, phosphorus and other oxygen-depleting substances,” said Sarah Kula, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project. “EPA’s plan to strengthen these rules is a win for downstream communities, and today’s agreement includes critical deadlines that hold EPA accountable to fixing this problem.”
EPA published today’s rulemaking timeline as part of a proposed consent decree that would resolve the community and conservation groups’ lawsuit, filed by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch, Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, Waterkeepers Chesapeake, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Center for Biological Diversity, Environment America, Food & Water Watch, The Humane Society of the United States, and Waterkeeper Alliance.
“Slaughterhouses are leading sources of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and their pollution disproportionately harms under-resourced communities, low-income communities, and communities of color,” said Earthjustice Attorney Alexis Andiman. “We applaud EPA for recognizing that it’s time to update the outdated standards governing water pollution from slaughterhouses, and we look forward to working with EPA to ensure that the new standards adequately protect people and the environment.”
EPA is accepting written public comments on the proposed consent decree for 30 days, until March 31, 2023. After EPA considers public comments, EPA and the community and conservation groups will file the proposed consent decree with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for approval to resolve the groups’ lawsuit.
Every year, slaughterhouses and rendering facilities discharge millions of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus, along with heavy metals and dozens of other pollutants, into rivers and streams across the United States. According to EPA, these facilities are the largest industrial source of phosphorus pollution and the second largest industrial source of nitrogen pollution. (Primary non-industrial sources of nitrogen pollution include animal manure and chemical fertilizers.) Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution have devastating consequences for human health and the environment, including fueling harmful algal outbreaks that render water unsafe for drinking, unfit for outdoor recreation, and uninhabitable for aquatic life.
In 2021, EPA reported that 74% of slaughterhouses and rendering facilities that discharge pollution directly into rivers and streams are within one mile of under-resourced communities, low-income communities, or communities of color.
The federal Clean Water Act requires EPA to set water pollution standards for industries — including slaughterhouses and rendering facilities, which are collectively known as Meat and Poultry Product or MPP facilities — and to review those standards each year to decide whether updates are appropriate to keep pace with advances in pollution-control technology. However, EPA has not revised water pollution control standards for slaughterhouses or rendering facilities since at least 2004. Ninety-five percent of these facilities are not subject to any federal water pollution standards at all, and a portion of the remaining 5% are governed by outdated standards published in the mid-1970s.
The community and conservation groups’ latest lawsuit follows an earlier challenge filed in 2019, which targeted the Trump administration’s decision not to update water pollution control standards for slaughterhouses and rendering facilities. In response to that earlier challenge, EPA pledged in September 2021 to strengthen water pollution standards for slaughterhouses. Today’s announcement sets a timeline for the revision process.
An October 2018 report from the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, “Water Pollution from Slaughterhouses,” reviewed the records of 98 meat and poultry processing plants across the U.S. and found that the median facility released an average of 331 pounds of total nitrogen per day, about as much as the amount contained in raw sewage from a town of 14,000 people.
Many slaughterhouses release far more nitrogen. For example, in 2017, the JBS USA pork processing plant in Beardstown, Illinois, polluted a tributary of the Illinois River with 1,849 pounds of nitrogen a day — equivalent to the load in raw sewage from a city of 79,000 people. High levels of nitrogen discharged from slaughterhouses and rendering facilities demonstrate that EPA’s existing water pollution control standards are no longer driving the industry to reduce water pollution, as Congress intended when it passed the Clean Water Act.
Slaughterhouses recently have made headlines for animal abuse and worker mistreatment during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Scattered throughout the Chesapeake region, there are several slaughterhouses that have discharged high levels of pollutants into our local waterways, violating their permits with little or no enforcement,” said Robin Broder, Waterkeepers Chesapeake, Acting Executive Director. “From the banks of the Susquehanna River to Maryland’s Eastern Shore to the Shenandoah Valley, slaughterhouses and rendering plants have functioned on outdated and inadequate permits, avoiding upgrading their facilities and discharging excessive and dangerous pollution into our local waterways. We are pleased that our communities will now know when they can expect these facilities to start using technology that will protect human health and ecosystems.”
“It’s encouraging that the EPA has promised to slash the meatpacking-industry pollution that has been allowed to foul waterways, kill wildlife, and unjustly harm nearby communities for far too long,” said Hannah Connor, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The next step is to increase oversight to ensure that slaughterhouses are actually held responsible for the ecological and health problems caused by the hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic, untreated animal waste they generate.”
“For far too long, meat and poultry processing plants have been dumping pollutants that contribute to toxic algae and dead zones, nitrates that can contaminate drinking water, and pathogens that can make us sick,” said John Rumpler, Senior Clean Water Director with Environment America. “In committing to update slaughterhouse standards, the EPA is following the law and its mission to ensure clean water. After decades of delay, we hope the agency will move swiftly to stop facilities that produce our food from polluting our water.”
“The evidence is clear — slaughterhouses are mega polluters. Yet, for decades, EPA has allowed these industrial facilities to excessively pollute our nation’s waterways. It took a lawsuit for the federal government to agree to update its inadequate standards. We look forward to engaging in EPA’s rulemaking to ensure that this dirty industry will finally receive the federal regulation it desperately requires,” said Tarah Heinzen, Food & Water Watch Legal Director.
“Slaughterhouses have been allowed to discharge high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other pollutants directly into our nation’s waterways or indirectly through municipal wastewater treatment plants for far too long and must be held accountable for their pollution and the cost of cleaning it up,” said Kelly Hunter Foster, Waterkeeper Alliance Senior Attorney. “The burden should not be passed down to the public and we’re pleased that EPA has agreed to start addressing this serious problem by adopting more protective water pollution standards.”
“Allowing slaughterhouses to operate under outdated pollution limits is just one more way the federal government has subsidized industrial animal agriculture,” said Animal Legal Defense Fund Managing Attorney, Amanda Howell. “We hope that EPA’s new standards will ensure that communities and animals living downstream of slaughterhouses are no longer burdened by this industries’ cost-saving measures.”