How the Biggest Nitrogen Polluter of U.S. Waterways Achieves EPA Compliance

Isabella Masini

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2020

According to an Environmental Integrity Project report, an Illinois pork-processing plant discharged more nitrogen from animal waste into waterways than any other slaughterhouse in the United States. Yet, the facility has complied with the Clean Water Act since December 2015. Animal-processing operations are not only some of the top polluters, but the federal water pollution standards surrounding these operations are lacking.

U.S. Top Nitrogen Polluter

In 2017, the Beardstown, Illinois facility released an average amount of 1,850 pounds of nitrogen per day into the Illinois River. Although the pig waste passes through a treatment facility, certain nutrients including nitrogen are not completely removed from the wastewater. The remaining nutrients alter the composition in the waterways, and thus impair the living environment for the wildlife. Facility waste may also be dumped into local waterways during storm water overflows. The facility, owned by the meat-processing giant JBS, disputed the discharge numbers within the report, stating that the facility only discharged 295 days in 2017, and not every day.

The Chicago Tribune investigation on Illinois hog operations, which reported that during 2005 to 2014 the operations impaired 67 miles of Illinois’ rivers, creeks, and waterways and killed at least 492,000 fish. The operations not only impact the wildlife, but people living nearby have concerns about respiratory issues.

Achieving Compliance: Lack of Monitoring, Enforcement, and New Policies

Amended in 2004, the federal limitation of nitrogen concentration in slaughterhouse wastewater per month is 134 milligrams per liter of water. This slaughterhouse wastewater standard is thirteen times more than the target goal for sewage treatment plants, 10 milligrams per liter. Overall, meat-processing facilities are held at a lower standard than any other operation. For example, until 2017, the EPA excused farms from reporting air releases from hazardous substances established by animal waste.

Eric Schaeffer, the current director of the Environmental Integrity Project and the past director of civil enforcement at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, stated that this generous discharge limit gives meat-processing facilities a lot of headroom to maintain compliance and continue to significantly pollute the waterways. In addition, the mayor of Beardstown does not show concerns of the facility’s pollution and instead returns the blame onto Illinois’ monitoring process that allows for the facility to act accordingly.

Another issue existing issue is that the JBS corporation is not reporting its discharge information. As stated by Kim Knowles, staff attorney with the Illinois-based nonprofit Prairie River Network, since October 2016, JBS has failed to submit discharge monitoring reports as required by the Clean Water Act.

While other states and local agencies have moved to address the numerous environmental issues caused by large hog operations, Illinois has not. Typically, enforcement falls onto the state’s attorney general to take polluters to court. However, in the current political climate, the Illinois EPA and the Office of the Attorney General have not been a cohesive unit to penalize Illinois polluters. Lastly, Schaeffer states that it is up to our state and federal lawmakers to motivate the meat-processing industry to adapt their facilities to include technology that is capable of removing more nitrogen.

Will the Beardstown Facility Change?

During the same year when the Beardstown facility was reported as the top nitrogen polluter in the U.S., JBS corporation produced a sustainability report. The report highlights of a couple facilities upgrading their wastewater treatment to increase the removal of additional nitrogen.

In addition, in 2018, JBS corporation hired a new Head of Ethics and Compliance, Lance Kotschwar. Kotschwar has nearly a decade of experience implementing compliance and regulatory programs in the agriculture industry and has worked at with the USDA and Congress on legislation and regulatory issues for nearly two decades. However, if Kotschwar was a part of creating these relaxed federal regulations on meat-processing plants, then his intentions to improve environmental compliance may not be a priority.

Although the Beardstown facility is showing that it is improving its environmental impact, our state and federal governments are continuing to fail in monitoring and enforcing the Beardstown facility to comply with environmental protection standards. And thus, the Beardstown community and wildlife will likely continue to suffer.