Settlement Proposed in Lawsuit against Chicken-processing Plant that Dumps into Suwannee River

By Eileen Kelley

November 15, 2017

Environmental activists on Wednesday filed a proposed consent decree in federal court to settle an eight-month legal battle against the country’s No. 2 chicken-processing plant’s Live Oak operation.

Pilgrim’s Pride has repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act, according to the lawsuit.

The proposed decree was signed off on by plaintiffs Environment Florida and the Sierra Club as well as Pilgrim’s Pride. If approved by District Judge Timothy Corrigan, Pilgrim’s would be required to make upgrades and possibly eliminate or significantly reduce its wastewater discharges into the Suwannee River. About 1.5 million gallons of wastewater from the processing plant is pumped into the Suwannee River daily.

Pilgrim’s would also have to pay $1.43 million in fines, a fee the plaintiffs believe is historic for the state. Of that money, $1.3 million would go to Stetson University in Deland where it will be used exclusively for the creation of a sustainable farming fund.

The administrator of that fund will distribute grants to independent farmers along the Suwannee River Basin for projects designed to improve surface and groundwater quality, soil quality and for projects that would reduce the impact of farms on the environment. The remaining fine of $130,000 will be paid to the U.S. Department of Treasury, according to the decree.

“I am so proud to have been part of this lawsuit and settlement,” said Whitey Markel, a long-time member of the Suwannee/St. Johns Sierra Club. “We have achieved our goal to help protect this valuable river for the enjoyment of all Florida citizens and visitors to the Sunshine State.”

The decree also calls for Pilgrim’s to pay the plaintiffs’ $295,000 in legal fees. The lawsuit is unique in that it was citizen groups that held the chicken processing company to task after reviewing the company’s self-reported wastewater surveys. Pilgrim’s, the lawsuit contends, had been in violation of standards and its permits.

Still, the state had not taken any meaningful action in well over 1,000 days of violations over five years, said Jennifer Rubiello, the state director of Environment Florida, an affiliate of Environment America.

“Our state officials were not doing enough to protect one of Florida’s most important rivers, so we stepped in as citizen enforcers of the Clean Water Act,” Rubiello said. “This great outcome demonstrates the importance of citizen lawsuits.”

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Environmental Protection will have a chance to weigh in on the decree.