EPA to Revise Outdated Water Pollution Standards for Slaughterhouses | Civil Eats

EPA to Revise Outdated Water Pollution Standards for Slaughterhouses

For the first time since 2004, the agency is set to update national water pollution standards for slaughterhouses, known for releasing significant amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen into waterways. 

Closeup motion blur of storm water runoff flowing through metal drainage culver under road. January storms brought heavy rain and flash flooding to Illinois - stock photo

Update: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced on March 1, 2023 that it plans to update water pollution rules for slaughterhouses for the first time in nearly 20 years. The agency says it will publish the proposed standards by the end of 2023 and finalize them by 2025.


One of world’s largest pig slaughterhouses, Smithfield Foods’ Tar Heel Plant spans 973,000-square-feet along the coastal plains of North Carolina. The plant can process more than 34,000 pigs in a day, flushed clean with water piped directly into the nearby Cape Fear River. According to data gathered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the facility poured more than a million pounds of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other pollutants into the river in 2020 alone.

For local residents, the stench and filmy residue, along with a growing number of toxic blue-green algae blooms, are some of the pollution’s more visible signs.

“It’s always been disturbing to see that discharge boiling up from the bottom where it enters the river,” said Kemp Burdette, who often paddles nearby the facility. Burdette is the Cape Fear Riverkeeper, a role that involves protecting and monitoring the river’s water quality. “When you see it, you instinctively know to stay away from it,” he added.

The Tar Heel Plant is just one of an estimated 7,000 meat processing facilities polluting America’s waterways, often in rural communities populated by people of color. The untreated wastewater of slaughterhouses often contains blood, fat, urine, fecal bacteria, pathogens, ammonia, nitrogen, and phosphorous.

Now, the EPA is set to address this longstanding issue. The agency announced last week that it will update the national water pollution standards for meat and poultry processing plants for the first time since 2004. Many of the slaughterhouses still follow discharge guidelines set in the 1970s.

Experts have long noted that EPA’s outdated discharge limits under the Clean Water Act enable slaughterhouses to overload the waterways with nutrients that contribute to algae blooms, kill off aquatic life, and imperil public health. The decision follows a federal lawsuit, filed by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and Earthjustice, challenging the EPA’s 2019 decision not to update its discharge limits.

“To protect drinking water supplies, recreational waters, and aquatic ecosystems, it is essential that we utilize the latest scientific and technological breakthroughs in wastewater treatment,” said Radhika Fox, the EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Water, in a press release.

Coinciding with its recent decision, the EPA completed a study that found that facilities that slaughter and process meat and poultry discharge the highest levels of phosphorus and second highest levels of nitrogen, compared to other industries. The EPA also highlighted its finding that 74 percent of these facilities discharge pollution into waterways within 1 mile of a disadvantaged community.

Smithfield’s Tar Heel Plant is no exception: 60 percent of those living within 3 miles of the facility are people of color and 53 percent are low-income, according to the EPA’s facility report.

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“I hope that, moving forward, the EPA will make sure that people living in those communities have an opportunity to weigh in and have a real voice when it comes to thinking of what these new [standards] should be and making sure that they provide adequate protection,” said Alexis Andiman, an attorney with Earthjustice.

Once the new standard is finalized, it will be incorporated into Clean Water Act permits for slaughterhouses moving forward. “Our hope is that EPA will move forward quickly with that rulemaking process,” said Hannah Connor, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. She pointed to the fact that technology is available to more effectively treat wastewater and added, “that technology should be put in place as soon as possible to protect communities and the environment.”

Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA is required to review existing standards for pollution discharge limits across industries on an annual basis to determine whether they should be updated. Yet the standards have not kept up with technology, resulting in a glaring discrepancy when it comes to the amount of pollution discharged from slaughterhouses, noted Sylvia Lam, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project.

“We found that the best performers really outpaced the worst performers by a significant amount,” said Lam, referring to EPA data analyzed for the 2019 federal lawsuit. They found that the 24 worst performing plants were responsible for 5.3 million pounds, or 48 percent of the industry’s nitrogen discharged into waterways, while the 25 best performing plants were responsible for around 183,000 pounds, or 2 percent of the total nitrogen discharged. The 2019 lawsuit is currently stayed while the EPA reviews its wastewater guidelines.

EIP and Earthjustice first highlighted the EPA’s insufficient discharge standards in a report published in 2018. The groups examined the 98 largest meat processing plants that discharge wastewater directly into waterways; 27 of those plants were owned by Tyson Foods. The report found that the median plant released 331 pounds of total nitrogen every day in 2017, or the equivalent to the amount contained in raw, untreated sewage from a town of 14,000 people.

However, the vast majority of meat processing facilities don’t directly discharge into the waterways but rather ship their waste to publicly owned treatment works, wastewater treatment facilities owned by local governments, thereby putting the burden for cleaning up private industry’s pollution on taxpayer-funded facilities. The EPA’s recent study found evidence suggesting a need for “pre-treatment standards,” which require waste to be treated prior to being shipped to a facility for final processing. Those standards don’t currently exist, however.

In particular, the EPA found that 73 percent of the 200 publicly owned water treatment facilities reviewed in their study have violated their own permits for pollutants found in wastewater from meat and poultry processing plants. Many of these facilities also have insufficient permits that do not include limits on nitrogen and phosphorous, which means public water treatment plants may be not violating permit requirements but still releasing high levels of these nutrients.

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“There is lot of evidence indicating that slaughterhouses should be [pre-treating wastewater] because publicly owned treatment works just aren’t able to process their waste,” said Andiman. “The treatment works often end up violating their own permits, because they’re discharging too many of the pollutants they’re getting from slaughterhouses. Pretreatment standards would fix that problem and EPA is now recognizing that.”

The EPA’s decision is part of a broader rulemaking process that will also update water pollution discharge limitations, known as effluent guidelines, for select industries that discharge polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

As a next step, Andiman hopes to see the EPA continue to update outdated effluent guidelines across pollutive industries. “So many guidelines are decades old,” she said. “The EPA could be preventing a lot of pollution if it took its responsibility to keep those pollution standards up to date with modern technology.”

Smithfield Foods did not respond to a request for comment. The North American Meat Institute, the largest trade institution representing meat packers and processors, responded to say that it will offer comments once EPA begins the rule making process.

Grey Moran is a Staff Reporter for Civil Eats. Their work has appeared in The Atlantic, Grist, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Intercept, and elsewhere. Grey writes narrative-based stories about public health, climate change, and environmental justice, especially with a lens on the people working toward solutions. They live in New Orleans. Read more >

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