Dear Poultry Facilities: Please Keep Turkey on the Table, Leave it Out of Our Water

Wednesday, September 5, 2012 by Holly Bannerman

Last month, a federal jury convicted House of Raeford Farms Inc., a North Carolina poultry slaughtering and processing facility, of 10 counts of knowing violations of the Clean Water Act. For nearly 16 months, blood, grease, and body parts from slaughtered turkeys were sent directly to the city of Raeford’s wastewater treatment plant by way of untreated wastewater. As evidenced by the House of Raeford’s own log books, plant employees allowed, on numerous occasions, overflows of untreated wastewater to bypass the facility’s pretreatment system in violation of their pretreatment permits as well as the city’s sewer use ordinance. Furthermore, thousands of gallons of wastewater were channeled through a pretreatment system that lacked the capacity to adequately treat the wastewater prior to being discharged.  

Section 309(c)(2)(A) of the Clean Water Act provides that an individual commits a criminal offense when he “knowing violates” various sections of the Act, “or any permit condition or limitation,” or any requirement imposed in a pretreatment program.” According to statements made by former employees, the company had been warned of the adverse impact these practices would have on the city’s wastewater treatment plant (which is responsible for treating industrial, commercial and residential wastewater), yet at no time were city officials notified.

Families and businesses depend on having clean water.  Our SBI agents will continue to work closely with their federal partners to protect the safety of our water supply and hold polluters accountable,” said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper.

Maureen O’Mara, Special Agent in Charge of EPA Region 4, commented, “[This] conviction sends the message that the American public will not tolerate companies putting profit ahead of compliance.” But, in addition to hoping that similar companies do hear the message loud and clear (because, let’s be honest, no one wants to be drinking turkey guts), this case raises another equally important, but less discussed issue: Who exactly was responsible for the monitoring and enforcement of the House of Raeford’s permits and how exactly did these violations go undiscovered for over a year? Several of the violations occurred while the facility was subject to a consent order with the city requiring that it construct a new pretreatment system and comply with all requirements of its pretreatment permit. Given that the employees documented many of the bypasses, a quick review of their log book, at minimum, would have revealed that the House of Raeford was not operating in compliance with state or federal provisions. This case clearly demonstrates that absent government oversight, some companies may be inclined to knowingly ”cut corners by illegally discharging wastewater,” In order to prevent such grievous violations from occurring, or, at least, from continuing for months on end, state and federal agencies need to work diligently to effectively carry out their duties as enforcers.

“Families and businesses depend on having clean water.  Our SBI agents will continue to work closely with their federal partners to protect the safety of our water supply and hold polluters accountable,” said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper.

While the facility did complete a $1.4 million upgrade to its wastewater pre-treatment system, resolving the issues that led to the trial, the House of Raeford still faces fines upwards of $500,000. Sentencing is scheduled for November 28, 2012.