Large Agribusinesses Polluting Waterways, Report Alleges

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By Amena H. Saiyid

June 30 — Five agribusinesses, responsible for about 44 percent of the pork, chicken and beef produced in the nation, discharged about 250.8 million pounds of toxic pollutants between 2010 and 2014 into the nation's waterways, a new report said.

Tyson Foods Inc., Smithfield Foods Inc., Cargill Inc., JBS USA, a subsidiary of JBS SA, and Perdue Farms also ranked among the top 15 companies among all industries that directly released toxic pollutants—largely nitrates—into the waterways in 2014, the report by the Environment America Research & Policy Center said.

Released June 30, “Corporate Agribusiness and the Fouling of America's Waterways” cited the companies to illustrate the extent of pollution, said John Rumpler, the report's author and senior attorney with Environment America, during a June 30 teleconference call with news reporters. Data about the companies' toxic discharges came from the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory database.

The EPA cited agriculture as the probable cause for making more than 145,000 miles of rivers and streams, 1 million acres of lakes and reservoirs and 3,000 square miles of bays and estuaries too polluted for swimming, fishing, drinking and maintaining healthy wildlife. Rumpler, in particular, blamed the corporate agribusinesses that operate large livestock operations as being responsible for the majority of the pollution entering the waterways.

The report called on policy makers to require such companies engage in sustainable agriculture practices that keep manure and fertilizer runoff away from nearby waters.

In a June 30 e-mail to Bloomberg BNA, Tyson's spokesman Worth Sparkman refuted the claims by Environment America, terming them “egregiously inaccurate and misleading.”

Companies Generate Manure, Contribute Runoff

For instance, the report said the supply chain of each of these companies includes all three types of what Environment America terms are “polluting” agribusiness operations: manure from animal feedlots, runoff from grain production and direct dumping of pollution from their processing plants to rivers and streams.

The report said these same five companies not only generate copious amounts of manure, but directly dump huge volumes of pollution into the rivers from their slaughterhouses and processing plants. The TRI database revealed that four of the five companies—Tyson, Smithfield, Cargill and JBS—were among the top 10 parent companies, from all industries, with the highest volumes of direct toxic discharges to the nation's waterways in 2014, while Perdue Farms, ranked 11th for direct dumping in the same year.

Specifically, Rumpler singled out Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods, as “coming out on top of the polluter pile.” The report ranked Tyson second among all companies discharging as much as 20.8 million pounds of toxic pollutants into the waterways in 2014, more by volume than ExxonMobil Corp. and Dupont. The company also is responsible for generating 55.2 million tons of manure each year, “manure that too often ends up untreated, ultimately fouling rivers, streams, and drinking water,” the report said.

Despite its vast water pollution footprint, Rumpler said the company has twice rejected shareholders' calls to improve its pollution record. The report cited Tyson's own 2015 sustainability report that shows that the company exceeded water pollution limits on hundreds of occasions in recent years.

“I raise my cows on rotational pasture to help keep our waterways clean,” said Terry Spence, a Missouri farmer who consults with the nonprofit Socially Responsible Agriculture Project and joined Rumpler on the conference call. “Companies like Tyson should do the same.”

Sparkman, the Tyson's spokesman, defended his company's practices.

“The water we use in our processing operations is returned to streams and rivers only after it’s been properly treated by wastewater treatment systems that are government-regulated and permitted. The data Environment America is sensationalizing is the same publicly available information we regularly provide the EPA about our wastewater treatment systems,” Sparkman said, adding that in an effort to be transparent, the company has been reporting on its water usage since 2005 in its annual sustainability reports.

“Because Environment America chose to publish this report without contacting us, we question the group’s methodology regarding manure management related to our supply chain,” Sparkman wrote. “We rely on more than 11,000 independent family farmers to raise poultry and livestock for our company, most of which are required by local, state and federal laws to have nutrient management plans.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

The report “Corporate Agribusiness and the Fouling of America's Waterways” is available at http://src.bna.com/goS.

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