A new lawsuit by a coalition of environmental groups calls on the world's second largest producer of chicken, Pilgrim's Pride, to stop dumping waste from its Live Oak plant into the Suwannee River. The group Environment Florida, which is spearheading the claim, announced Friday that it's launching the suit because the plant isn't just polluting the river, which it's allowed to do, but it's polluting at rates up to three times the amount it's allowed to discharge into the important river by law,
The suit alleges that the company has racked up1,377 days of Clean Water Act violations since 2012.
Jennifer Rubiello, state director of Environment Florida, told CL that their grounds for the suit come from data the company self-reports on waste releases into the river to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which it is required to do in order to be in compliance with the Federal Clean Water Act. And even though its own numbers are showing releases exceeding their daily allotment, she said, the state doesn't seem to be cracking down anytime soon.
Environmental advocates say they're taking action because no one else will.
"Here is one of the world's largest meat companies continually dumping pollution into one of Florida's most beautiful rivers," Rubiello said. "If our own state officials won't step in and protect the Suwannee, then Environment Florida will."
Chicken produced at Pilgrim's Pride plants, of which there are 14 in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, is sold at KFC, Publix, Wendy's and Wal-Mart.
If that giant meat producer, whose parent company is Brazilian meat conglomerate JBS — a known corporate polluter not unfamiliar to the environmental community — is dumping the volumes of wastewater into the Suwannee that the lawsuit's backers say it is, the effects could be hurting the health of the river.
Nutrient-rich industrial waste — complete, in this case, presumably, with decaying chicken parts as well as their nitrogen-laden bodily waste — fosters the growth of harmful algae that blocks the sun, thereby contributing to the royal screwing up of the local ecosystem and aquatic food chain. Some of the substances released in the waterway also be directly toxic to aquatic wildlife in the river.
If the chicken plant is contributing to such an occurrence, it would affect everyone, regardless of politics, advocates say. An algae-choked waterway with little to no healthy fish isn't just terrible thing to environmentalists; it also hurts the local economy, given the tens of thousands of people who visit the river to paddle, dive and fish.
“The Suwannee River is one of Florida’s jewels,” said Whitey Markle, a longtime member of the Sierra Club of Suwannee-St. John’s leg, in a written statement. “It is essential that we preserve this valuable river for the enjoyment of all Florida citizens and visitors to the Sunshine State.”
A spokesperson for Pilgrim's Pride told the Jacksonville Times-Union that the suit was concerning, but baseless and that "corrective measures were identified and implemented" to curb past pollution problems.
If the lawsuit finds Pilgrim's Pride Live Oak plant is found to be in violation, Rubiello said, the company would likely be forced to comply with clean water rules, and could face a penalty of up to $100 million.
Rubiello said cases like this underscore the need for clean water protections, given how eager the Drumpf administration seems to be to do away with environmental regulations like the Clean Water Act, which she calls a "bedrock environmental law" in the U.S.
"In the '70s, rivers were lighting on fire," Rubiello said. "We don't want to go back to that."