EPA Can’t Dodge Suit Over Slaughterhouse Water-Pollution Rules

Workers wear protective masks and stand between plastic dividers at the Tyson Foods poultry plant in Camilla, Ga. (Tyson Foods via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — A lawsuit claiming the Environmental Protection Agency’s water pollution standards for slaughterhouses are outdated will move forward, the Fourth Circuit ruled.

“Upon consideration of submissions relative to the motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, the court defers consideration of the motion pending a review of the merits of the case,” Wednesday’s unsigned, two-page order states.

The lawsuit, filed with the Richmond-based appeals court last December by several environmental advocacy groups, challenges limits set by the EPA on water pollution at meat-processing plants. Organizations like Cape Fear River Watch and the Center for Biological Diversity claim the agency’s limits are too relaxed.

The EPA last updated its regulations for slaughterhouses that discharge pollutants directly into waterways 15 years ago and about a third of those facilities are still operating under guidelines from the 1970s, the groups say.

According to the environmentalists, slaughterhouses purge thousands of gallons of water contaminated with blood, oil and hazardous chemicals like nitrogen and phosphorus into local waterways, which causes algae blooms and other damage to the environment.

The EPA’s current rule allows for more than 2,400 gallons of water containing these toxins to be expelled from poultry slaughterhouses and a little over 500 gallons from cow and pig slaughterhouses, per every 1,000 pounds of processed material.  

The agency moved to dismiss the case based on a lack of jurisdiction, saying the rule still needed to be vetted through a public comment period before courts can take up the matter.   

“The petition should be dismissed because River Watch does not challenge any final action or promulgation by the EPA,” the motion states. “River Watch challenges a non-final, non-promulgated statement that the EPA made at the beginning of a public comment process on several issues.”

Last October, the agency said it would not revise the pollution standards for slaughterhouses that discharge wastewater directly into local bodies of water or create standards for facilities that first send their wastewater to sewage plants.

Conservation groups argued in a brief to the Fourth Circuit that this decision was the “EPA’s last word on the matter.”

“Even if EPA were to reach a different conclusion about the necessity of revisions during a future annual review, that hypothetical future change does not render the agency’s actual decision non-final now,” the brief states.

A Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the appeals court’s order.

Hannah Connor, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an interview Thursday the EPA had already said it would not review these standards for some companies with “pretty gnarly effluent streams” and argued the agency should update its pollution regulations.  

“What we’re saying is you know, it’s 2020, there have been huge technological advances since the 1970s,” Connor said.

Peter Lehner, an attorney for Earthjustice, which helped file the lawsuit, said the lack of updates to the wastewater discharge regulations is simply wrong.

“Alarmingly, as Trump seeks to strip slaughterhouse workers of their legal rights just to protect the owners of massive corporate slaughterhouses, shamefully weak pollution standards also effectively shield those same bigwigs from liability for the harm they cause waterways and downstream communities,” Lehner said in a statement.  

Sylvia Lam, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a statement Thursday the coalition of environmental groups was eager to continue it legal fight challenging the Trump administration’s prioritization of “corporations over people.”

“We filed this lawsuit because it was clear that, due to outdated regulations, these corporate slaughterhouses would not clean up the waste they continue to dump into local rivers and streams on their own,” she said.  

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