Lawsuit claims poultry processor hurts Suwannee River

March 9, 2017
By Steve Patterson

Environmental activists sued one of the world’s biggest poultry producers in Jacksonville’s federal court Thursday, saying a chicken processing site near Live Oak is polluting the Suwannee River.

The suit argues Pilgrim’s Pride regularly violated pollution standards written into company permits for years, pointing to daily reports compiled by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Activists said the state hasn’t taken meaningful action despite more than 1,000 days of violations over five years.

“Here is one of the world’s largest meat companies continually dumping pollution into one of Florida’s most beautiful rivers,” said Jennifer Rubiello, state director of Environment Florida. “If our own state officials won’t step in and protect the Suwannee, then Environment Florida will.”

Runoff water from the plant, where chickens are fed and slaughtered, contains nitrogen from animal feces and a range of chemicals that are part of the plant’s operation. The suit says the nitrogen has helped algae growth in the Suwannee and the chemicals at time exceed levels the permit considers toxic to wildlife in the river.

The pollution violated the federal Clean Water Act, activists said, noting citizens can sue to gain enforcement of environmental laws.

A Pilgrim’s spokesman said the company “takes this allegation seriously,” but didn’t think there was a basis for it.

The reports the suit is based on were from testing that the company conducted and reported to the state, said spokesman Cameron Bruett.

When those reports were made, Bruettt said, “corrective measures were identified and implemented to address concerns. We are unaware of any current conditions that would merit this legal action, however we will review the complaint and respond appropriately.”

The Sierra Club’s Suwannee-St Johns Group plans to join the suit when a 60-day waiting period is finished.

“Pilgrim’s Pride has been polluting that river … for 30 years,” said Whitey Markle, chair of the Sierra Club’s Suwannee-St Johns Group. “The [Florida] Department of Environmental Protection needs to do their job and enforce the rules.”

The Live Oak plant was owned by a different company, Gold Kist, until 2007. The plant is one of Suwannee County’s largest employers, with a workforce that ranged between 1,000 and 1,400 during recent years.

Supporters of the lawsuit said they weren’t trying to harm the company, only protect the river.

“We’re not anti-chicken,” said Garth Brewster, who had traveled about 85 miles from O’Brien, near the Suwannee, to be part of a press conference outside Jacksonville’s federal courthouse. But Brewster said she was worried about river’s health, and wanted to ensure it was safe for people to fish and kayak there.

A Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman, Dee Ann Miller, said the state is working on its third agreement since 2010 for Pilgrim’s Pride to improve its wastewater.

The company paid a $36,000 penalty and met goals included in a deal with the state between 2010 and 2012, Miller said, but hadn’t shown improvements required for another compact covering for 2015 and 2016.

The third agreement, which is being developed now, will include “a more robust compliance plan as well as … additional penalties,” Miller said.

Steve Patterson: (904) 359-4263