EPA Proposes to Exempt Most Slaughterhouses from Updated Water Pollution Control Rules

Environmental Groups Urge EPA to Require Meat Processing Plants to Comply with Modern Technology Standards for Nitrogen and Phosphorus Pollution
Published Jan 22, 2024

Food System

Environmental Groups Urge EPA to Require Meat Processing Plants to Comply with Modern Technology Standards for Nitrogen and Phosphorus Pollution
Environmental Groups Urge EPA to Require Meat Processing Plants to Comply with Modern Technology Standards for Nitrogen and Phosphorus Pollution

Washington, D.C. – The federal government tomorrow is scheduled to publish that would require pollution reductions from fewer than half of the 3,879 slaughterhouses and meat processing plants that discharge waste to U.S. rivers, lakes, and streams.

The regulations would cut pollution significantly from the largest plants that pipe their waste directly into waterways, but largely ignore the far more numerous meat processing plants that send their effluent first to municipal sewage treatment plants, which are often overwhelmed and not equipped to treat the industrial waste. Clean water organizations are responding by urging the agency to do more to crack down on slaughterhouses, which are the largest industrial source of phosphorus and nitrogen pollution (so-called “nutrients”) that feeds algal outbreaks and fish-killing “dead zones” in America’s waterways. EPA plans to hold an on Wednesday and a hearing at agency headquarters on January 31.

Dani Replogle, Food & Water Watch Staff Attorney, said: “Slaughterhouses have spent decades polluting our nation’s waters with abandon, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill. EPA must seize this opportunity to rein in this dirty industry by enacting the most environmentally protective regulatory option without further delay.”

“It is well past time for slaughterhouses to put in place modern pollution controls that EPA acknowledges are widely available,” said Sarah Kula, Environmental Integrity Project attorney. “EPA proposes significant reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus dischargers from big slaughterhouses that pipe their wastes into public waterways, and that is welcome news. But its preferred option would allow thousands of slaughterhouses to continue to dump nutrients into public sewage treatment plants that aren’t prepared to handle them. All communities deserve relief from the slaughterhouse industry’s harmful nutrient pollution.”

Earthjustice attorney Alexis Andiman said: “EPA admits that pollution from slaughterhouses and meat processing plants disproportionately harms under-resourced communities, low-income communities, and communities of color. We applaud EPA for taking action to strengthen the outdated and under-protective water pollution control standards that govern this industry—but we urge the agency to ensure that its new standards protect the people most at risk.”

A coalition of 13 environmental organizations sued the EPA in 2019 and 2022 demanding that the agency follow the requirements of the Clean Water Act and modernize badly outdated technology standards for water pollution control systems for slaughterhouses and meat processing plants, which have not been updated in two decades. In response to lawsuits, scheduled for publication in the Federal Register tomorrow that include three options for cleaning up wastewater from slaughterhouses.   EPA’s “preferred option” would strengthen nitrogen pollution limits and, for the first time, limit phosphorus discharges from an estimated 126 facilities that directly discharge into waterways.   The new standards, if adopted, would eliminate nine million pounds of nitrogen per year from these direct dischargers, as well as eight million pounds of phosphorus. However, EPA’s preferred option is the weakest of the three alternatives it has proposed because it would require no nutrient controls from the  3,708 slaughterhouses and meat processing plants that send their wastewater to municipal treatment facilities, which often lack the necessary technology to treat this pollution. Instead, EPA’s preferred option would only control oil and grease, total suspended solids, and biochemical oxygen demand from about 719 of these indirect dischargers.  These indirect dischargers have gotten a free pass for decades.

 “Many municipal wastewater treatment plants cannot handle the slaughterhouse and rendering facility waste they receive, likely contributing to 73% of these treatment plants violating their clean water permit limits,” said Kelly Hunter Foster, Waterkeeper Alliance Senior Attorney. “EPA must establish pretreatment pollution limits for this industry rather than allowing it to either pollute waterways or pass their treatment expenses off to impacted communities and citizens that cannot, and should not, bear those costs.”

Fortunately, EPA’s proposal includes a more protective alternative that would require over 40 percent  of these indirect dischargers to remove nutrients from the wastes they dump into public sewer systems. EPA estimates that this option would eliminate another 67 million tons of nitrogen and 20 million tons of phosphorus every year.  EPA has also publicly acknowledged that nutrient contamination is the most significant contributor to the contamination that keeps so many rivers, streams, lakes, and estuaries from meeting the “fishable and swimmable” standards the Clean Water Act promised more than half a century ago.  The coalition of groups is demanding that EPA do more and, at a minimum, adopt the most environmentally protective alternative among the three that EPA has proposed to keep slaughterhouse wastes from overwhelming public sewer systems.   

Background: The federal Clean Water Act requires the EPA to set water pollution standards for all industries and to review those standards each year to determine whether updates are appropriate to keep pace with advances in pollution-control technology.  Despite this mandate, the EPA has failed to revise standards for slaughterhouses and meat processing plants for at least 19 years.  Some slaughterhouses and rendering facilities are still subject to standards established in the mid-1970s. And the EPA has never published national standards applicable to the vast majority of slaughterhouses and meat processing facilities, which discharge polluted wastewater indirectly through publicly-owned treatment works.

In response to this failure of EPA to update its standards, the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice sued the agency on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch, Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, Waterkeepers Chesapeake, Waterkeeper Alliance, Humane Society of the United States, Food & Water Watch, Environment America, Comite Civico del Valle, Center for Biological Diversity, and Animal Legal Defense Fund.  This coalition initially challenged the Trump Administration’s decision not to update water pollution control standards for slaughterhouses and meat processing plants in 2019.  In response to that challenge, the EPA pledged to strengthen its regulations, but it did not commit to a timeline for doing so.  The coalition then filed a second lawsuit in December 2022 to press the EPA to act promptly, resulting in an agreement that committed the EPA to propose new standards by December 2023 and publish final standards by August 2025. EPA now plans to conduct on the proposed rule, including an online-only hearing on January 24, 2024, and an in-person hearing at EPA Headquarters on January 31, 2024.  To provide comment during the January 24 virtual hearing, participants must register by 5 pm EST on January 22. To provide comment at the January 31 in-person hearing, participants are encouraged to register before 5pm EST on January 26 Supporting materials for the rulemaking can be found at EPA’s docket at . QUOTES FROM ALLIED GROUPS:

John Rumpler, Clean Water Director for Environment America, said:  “If the price of a slightly cheaper chicken nugget is dead fish, toxic algae or people getting sick from pollution, I think most Americans would say no thank you.  The EPA should strengthen its proposed rule to keep more than 300 million pounds of slaughterhouse pollution out of our rivers and streams, as current technology allows.”

Robin Broder, Deputy Director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, said: “We are disappointed that EPA has chosen the least protective option, which is bad news for the Chesapeake region since we have far more indirect discharging slaughterhouses and rendering facilities than direct dischargers. In our region that is already suffering from nutrient pollution, the lack of limits on nitrogen and phosphorus for the majority of our plants is incredibly short sighted, especially given that the technology to do this exists.”

Rebecca Cary, special counsel for the Humane Society of the United States, said: “We are heartened that the EPA has begun the long overdue process of curbing the daily discharge of blood, fat, nitrogen and other pollutants from industrial slaughter and rendering facilities into our waters. Limiting pollution from inhumane factory farming systems will be an important step toward protecting both people and animals from this pollution.”

Larissa Liebmann, senior staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said: “Lax regulations allow industrial animal agriculture to profit while burdening communities with pollution and causing animals immense suffering. With these updated pollution standards, EPA is making slaughterhouses account for some of the costs of addressing their unsustainable business model.”

For a copy of the proposed regulations,

Press Contact: Phoebe Galt [email protected]