Bay Journal

Smithfield gets record fine for polluting Virginia river

  • By Associated Press on September 01, 1997
  • Comments are closed for this article.

One of the largest pork companies on the East Coast was fined $12.6 million - the largest water pollution fine ever- for dumping hog waste into a Chesapeake Bay tributary.

U.S. District Judge Rebecca B. Smith ruled Aug. 8 that Smithfield Foods Inc. was liable for nearly 7,000 violations of the Clean Water Act since 1991. She said she wanted at least a portion of the fine to be used for Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts. The ruling resulted from an EPA lawsuit that accused Smithfield of polluting the Pagan River and destroying documents to cover it up.

"This decision sends a strong message that there can be no profit in pollution," said W. Michael McCabe, regional administrator for the EPA. "The court has made clear that even a large multibillion-dollar corporation like Smithfield Foods cannot gain competitive advantage at the expense of the public's health."

In her ruling, the judge found that Smithfield Foods saved itself $4.2 million by avoiding or delaying compliance with the environmental rules.

"The court's decision today is a victory for Virginians and all Americans who want cleaner waters," said Lois J. Schiffer, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. "Would-be polluters of our nation's waters are on notice-if you dirty our waters, you will pay the price."

Smithfield Foods, which also owns the John Morrell meat-packing plant in Sioux Falls, SD, denounced the EPA and said most of the federal violations were permitted under an agreement with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

The company said it would appeal and "work with others to change the Clean Water Act enforcement scheme so that the EPA will not be allowed to ... prosecute an enforcement action when a responsible state has previously taken effective action."

Virginia has its own lawsuit pending against Smithfield, which alleges the meat packer's two plants in Isle of Wight County violated pollution laws 22,000 times the past decade. The allegations include exceeding limits for discharging nitrogen, chlorine and other pollutants into the Pagan River, and falsifying and destroying records.

Smithfield Foods, which slaughters pigs and packs the meat in two plants on the river, was accused of dumping illegal levels of hog waste into the river for several years. The decaying waste and excrement raised the levels of phosphorous and other elements in the river, poisoning shellfish beds. The Pagan River has been closed to shellfishing for 27 years because of high levels of fecal bacteria and is considered unhealthy for swimming.

Smithfield Foods argued for a fine of no more than $650,000, citing its agreement with the state and noting that many of the records violations were the fault of a former employee.

But Smith, who could have fined the company $174.55 million, ruled Smithfield was liable for 6,982 violations, most of which were for violating pollution levels. She also ruled that the company did not have certain records for a full three years as the permits required.

The judge also found Smithfield Foods had 164 violations for late reporting. The company previously agreed it was liable for 15 days of inaccurate reporting of discharges.

Smith said phosphorus emissions accounted for the majority of the company's violations, but it also violated rules regulating the levels of ammonia, nitrogen, fecal coliform, feces and suspended solids in the river.

Experts hired by the government testified that Smithfield's violations were responsible for 80 percent of the phosphorus in the Pagan. Phosphorus, along with nitrogen, is the focus of a major nutrient reduction effort by the Bay states. The nutrients stimulate algae blooms which block sunlight to Bay grasses that provide food and habitat for crabs, young fish and waterfowl. When algae die and sink to the bottom, they decompose in a process that depletes the water of oxygen needed by many aquatic organisms.

The judge gave Smithfield Foods some credit for hooking up to a local sewage treatment plant to prevent future violations. On Aug. 7, Smithfield Foods officially ended decades of dumping hog wastes into the Pagan River by completing a hookup with a treatment plant.

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