Few penalties, lax oversight for chicken plants that pollute

State favors self-regulation over fines for chicken processors. EPA finds multiple Clean Water Act violations at one plant.


Tipped off about recurring environmental concerns at chicken plants along Flat Creek in north Georgia, Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigative reporter Shannon McCaffrey reviewed state and environmental files detailing the scope of the problem. The files included water quality readings reported to the state Environmental Protection Division by the chicken plants themselves. The AJC also analyzed independent testing data conducted by the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, which contradicted some company reports. While the two companies declined to comment, the AJC spoke to the Georgia Poultry Federation to provide perspective from the industry. The AJC also spoke to volunteers who conduct water quality testing on Lake Lanier.

Go to myAJC.com to meet some volunteers who test water quality at Lake Lanier in a special video for AJC subscribers.

One of Georgia’s largest chicken processors has for years exceeded pollution standards for storm water runoff feeding into Lake Lanier — a major source of drinking water for metro Atlanta — with few consequences from state regulators, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found.

The AJC’s findings raise questions about the state’s practice of allowing the chicken processors to essentially regulate themselves and spot test their own storm water runoff, which can contain the bacteria found in chicken feces.The state has just two inspectors overseeing industrial storm water pollution permits at some 3,000 sites.

Indeed, the most aggressive water testing at Lake Lanier is conducted by volunteers — local residents who sample the lake water monthly at 24 sites.

“It’s a sad state of affairs when the federal government and the state government place the main water testing responsibility on a group of volunteers, but that’s what happens here,” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Operations Project Manager for Lake Lanier Tim Rainey said.

The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog that has also found high pollution levels coming from two chicken processors in the area, has complained for years that the state is too lax.

Those concerns were validated this year when surprise federal inspections found that Pilgram’s Pride and Mar-Jac Poultry were failing to do enough to prevent waste and manure from washing into a north Georgia creek that empties into the southern end of Lake Lanier.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered multiple violations of the Clean Water Act by the two plants, which together slaughter and process millions of chickens a week at plants in Gainesville. Georgia is the leading supplier of chickens in the nation, producing 1.3 billion birds a year for consumption.

Documents reviewed by the AJC found that since 2006 Pilgrim’s Pride has regularly dumped more pollutants into Flat Creek than the state allows but has not been hit with a fine. Records show Mar-Jac did not exceed the state limits as frequently as Pilgrim’s Pride. But independent testing on water flowing from the Mar-Jac site by the Riverkeeper recorded higher bacteria levels than the company reported in its own documents.

“These facilities need to comply with clean water laws to protect public health and water quality downstream of the facility,” Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth said.

The state “has been less than forceful in making sure they are complying,” he said. “There are few consequences beyond telling them to improve.”

The poultry industry wields considerable political clout in the state. Three years ago, it prevailed on state regulators to back off a more aggressive timetable for getting polluters to comply with clean water benchmarks.

State officials finally notified Pilgrim’s Pride last June it had to make improvements to its plant to reduce the contaminated discharge. But the company has three years to comply, state records show.

“We are diligently working on that area so we can have clean water,” said James Capp, head of the state Environmental Protection Divisions’s water branch said.

Pilgrim’s Pride did not return repeated calls seeking comment. Mar-Jac declined to comment.

Mike Giles, head of the Georgia Poultry Federation, said the plants are not the only ones to blame for high levels of bacteria in the creek, which runs through one of the city’s heaviest industrial stretches. And he questioned whether fecal coliform, common in human and animal feces, was a reliable pollution benchmark.

“I am not aware of any other private regulated entity in the Flat Creek watershed that is required to take such concrete steps to reduce fecal coliform concentrations in storm water runoff, even though water quality sampling in the Flat Creek watershed demonstrates that there are many sources of fecal coliform impacting the creek,” Giles said.

He pointed to independent studies showing fecal coliform levels decreasing as water reaches Lake Lanier.

A ‘critical’ basin for Atlanta

Levels of fecal coliform bacteria are so high in Flat Creek that the state Environmental Protection Division lists it as an impaired waterway. Ulseth and others acknowledge the poultry plants aren’t the sole source of the bacteria in the stream. But the group’s testing shows that bacteria levels skyrocket near the chicken plants after it rains.

Pilgrim’s Pride and Mar-Jac are the only two poultry processors along the creek that slaughter live birds. A frequent cause of fecal coliform bacterial contamination in waterways is manure, and the bacteria can live in the intestines of warm-blooded animals. Drinking water contaminated with the bacteria can cause diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, cramps and other gastro-related distresses. Exposure can cause rashes and other skin problems.

Flat Creek flows into the southern end of Lake Lanier, home to beaches and boat launches and a popular recreation destination.

The lake stretches over 58 square miles but the state samples water at just 10 sites once a month from April to October. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducts water quality testing along Lanier’s beaches and only during the recreation season.

The most extensive testing is conducted, instead, by volunteers with the Lake Lanier Association.

“We would like to see the state and the federal governments take a bigger role,” the group’s leader Joanna Cloud said.

Cloud said Flat Creek has been an ongoing problem. Sometimes after rains the creek is so choked with garbage you can barely see the water, she said.

The city of Gainesville is moving to do more, launching plans for a clean up program. But the creek also passes through unincorporated Hall County which complicates the effort.

Flat Creek and Lake Lanier are part of the Chattahoochee River basin, which supplies water to much of metro Atlanta. Constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950’s, Lake Lanier is a multi-purpose lake used for for flood protection, power production, water supply, navigation, recreation and fish and wildlife management.

The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper began to focus on Flat Creek in 2009 when more than 100 fish turned up dead in the stream near the plants. Volunteers with the group recently began collecting their own water samples from areas near the chicken plants.

“The health of this river basin is absolutely critical (for metro Atlanta),” said Sally Bethea, former head of the environmental group.

Surprise federal inspections

Tipped off about chronic issues at the Gainesville poultry plants, federal investigators in August made a a pair of unannounced visits.

In a report obtained by the AJC, inspectors who visited the Pilgrim’s Pride plant noted maggots in drains and pipes as well as “red water” — presumably contaminated with blood — on the site. Large chicken parts, such as legs, were seen being dumped into lines leading to water treatment on the site, the report found.

Some of the issues were the result of sheer volume. Fifty trucks full of chickens ready for slaughter arrive at the site daily. Inspectors said that, with such heavy traffic, some of the trucks sit waiting in the open, the birds dropping feather and manure on the ground. To cool the birds, they were hosed down with water that could ultimately find it’s way to the creek. All tolled, the EPA noted two dozen Clean Water Act violations at Pilgrim’s Pride, the report found.

At Mar-Jac, a separate EPA report found the company had not properly updated it’s storm water prevention plan. Additionally, there were questions about red or rust stained water observed gushing from a discharge point from the plant which the company had said was inactive. The company argued the discharge may have come from another source.

Under Georgia’s practice of self-regulation, companies are required to collect their own water samples when it rains and provide them for testing to see if they exceed certain benchmarks. State records show Pilgrim’s Pride regularly failed to deliver the required number of samples, a finding also confirmed by the EPA.

Fecal coliform bacteria must arrive at the lab within six hours of being collected for reliable testing. The company said that tight timeline makes testing difficult. But the EPA dismissed that explanation.

“This reason does not carry much weight because the facility operated 5-6 days per week from 4:55 a.m.-4:30 a.m. … and is not located a long way from the lab,” the EPA report said. “Facility representatives indicated that the lab is located at a location where Pilgrims Pride trucks go between every day as part of normal operations.”

A history of high readings

State officials have found shortcomings in Pilgrim’s Pride’s pollution control practices since at least 2006, state records reviewed by the AJC show.

Since 2006, the processor has exceeded pollution benchmarks in nearly one out of every two tests they have conducted, according to an AJC analysis of 95 readings collected by the company and provided to the state. Still, the state did little more than tell them to conduct additional tests.

In most cases Mar-Jac’s readings have been within the required pollution caps. But Riverkeeper’s own testing near the Mar-Jac plant detected levels well above the caps. On three instances in 2013 and 2014 the company and the environmental group sampled on the same day and came up with vastly different readings. On April 14, 2014, for example, Mar-Jac reported fecal coliform levels of 280 and 220 — well under the cap of 4,000. But Riverkeeper’s readings were 20,000 and 46,000, five to 10 times higher than the required pollution cap. On Oct. 3, 2014, Mar Jac reported levels of 130 and 109 while Riverkeeper’s testing showed levels of 41,060 and 6,700.

The poultry industry wields considerable clout in state politics. In 2012, state environmental officials moved to put in place tighter regulations for facilities that repeatedly exceed water quality benchmarks.

While it did give the state more muscle to punish chronic polluters it also gave them plenty of time to do so. Originally, the proposal would have given facilities 12 months to bring their discharges into compliance with benchmarks. But the Georgia Poultry Federation came in and successfully lobbied the state to get that timeline stretched to three years.

Giles, of the state poultry federation, said the group asked for additional time so that companies can make sometimes costly capital improvements such as paving, curbs or pumping systems to better control storm water flow.

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