Three-quarters of meat processing plants that discharge wastewater directly into waterways exceeded their permit limits for nitrogen, fecal bacteria, or other pollutants at least once from January 2016 through June 2018, according to a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project.

The EIP report, prepared with help from the environmental law firm Earthjustice, looked at 98 plants that discharged 250,000 gallons or more of wastewater daily directly to waterways, and for which public data are available.

Of those plants, EIP found that 60 “release their wastewater to rivers, streams, and other waterways that are impaired because of the main pollutants found in slaughterhouse wastewater: bacteria, pathogens, nutrients, and other oxygen-depleting substances.”

EIP called the JBS pork processing plant in Beardstown, Ill., “the most polluting slaughterhouse in (the) U.S. last year.” The plant released an average of 1,848 pounds of nitrogen per day into a tributary to the Illinois River, the “equivalent to the load in raw sewage from a city of 79,000 people, according to EPA data,” EIP said in a news release.

The concentration of nitrogen in the wastewater from that plant is 125 milligrams/Liter – approximately 125 parts per million.

JBS USA spokesman Cameron Bruett responded, saying the Beardstown facility “is well within its permitting requirements and has achieved improved environmental compliance” since JBS took over from previous owner Cargill in October 2015. “The facility has not experienced an environmental noncompliance since December 2015,” he said.

Bruett said JBS also disputed the “average daily discharge calculation” in the report, calling it “inconsistent with our internal data.”

Kim Knowles of Prairie Rivers Council, who was on a teleconference to discuss the report, said the Beardstown plant’s nitrogen concentration is below the permit limit of 134 mg/L, but “that’s not a great achievement because both of those numbers (125 mg/L and 134mg/L) are pretty high.” The report criticized permit limits in general as being too high, noting that other plants are able to meet 10 mg/L limits.

The report said “Tyson Foods owns the most plants with violations (26); followed by Pilgrim’s Pride (7); Sanderson Farms (6); JBS (4); Wayne Farms (4) and Smithfield (3).” Five of Tyson’s plants are in the top 10 for nitrogen discharges.

Tyson spokesman Worth Sparkman said water used in Tyson plants “is returned to streams and rivers only after it’s been properly treated by our wastewater treatment systems, which operate under government permits.”

About the violations, Sparkman said, “Occasionally treated water does not meet the standards set in our permits. When this occurs, which is rare, we are required to report it to the regulatory agency and quickly take corrective action to ensure we’re operating within the permits.”

The report criticized lax enforcement by state agencies and said the Environmental Protection Agency and citizen groups should “step in and enforce permit limits for slaughterhouses and impose penalties when states fail to do so, as a way of sending a message to industry to reduce its pollution and modernize its control systems.”

The analysis in the report "is based upon public data from the (EPA), wastewater discharge permits, and state water quality reports," the report said.

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