The concentration of thousands of animals in factory farms (instead of hanging out all free range-style like the chicken pictured above) has created a massive concentration of animal feces that ends up in waterways across Texas and across the country, according to the results of a study recently conducted by the Environment Texas Research and Policy Center, a state-focused arm of Environment America Research and Policy Center.
“When most people think of water pollution, they think of pipes dumping toxic chemicals,” Hayden Hamilton, clean water advocate with Environment Texas, stated in a recently issued release. “But this report shows how, increasingly, corporations like Tyson are running our farms and ruining our waterways.”
The study was conducted based on livestock production data from various large meat and poultry producers gathered in 2014. Pilgrim's Pride — a Texas-based company that started as a feed store in Pittsburg, Texas, back in 1946 but is now Brazilian-owned and is the main supplier for KFC — has the dubious honor of being the top performer in the pollution arena, clocking the highest discharge rate in Texas. The company reported releasing 2.7 million pounds of toxic pollutants (mostly manure) into local waters in 2014.
They weren't the only ones either. Agricultural and food facilities, including Borden, Dean Foods and H-E-B, also reported discharging 1.2 million pounds of toxic chemicals to wastewater treatment plants in Texas that year. Tyson Foods also made a solid showing, according to the report. Tyson, one of the largest poultry and meat producers in the world, is based in Arkansas but has 11 facilities in Texas, giving the company a solid presence in this state. A Tyson processing center located in Center, Texas, discharged 615,811 pounds of toxic pollutants into local waters in 2014, according to the data it provided to the federal Toxics Release Inventory.
The problem with all this manure and other forms of animal processing pollution is that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality says that this type of "agribusiness" contributes to the impairment of 690 miles of rivers and streams in Texas, according to the release. In the Houston region, TCEQ estimates that 40,000 livestock contribute to contamination in the San Jacinto River watershed, a key contributor to the Houston water supply.
This type of pollution can also get very personal, the report states. Most of the toxic discharges from these companies are nitrates, which are linked to birth defects, such as blue baby syndrome, and some forms of cancer, according to the release. As you probably guessed, most of these nitrates come from the animal droppings, because, well, that stuff has to go somewhere. And these types of pollutants have also been linked to the environment in a broader sense. Researchers have found that these pollutants can end up as far afield as the Gulf of Mexico, potentially creating "deadzones" in the Gulf, according to this report.
However, there's a flip side to all this. Tyson Foods spokesman Worth Sparkman responded to our request for comment on the report with an emphatic dismissal of all the claims made in it.
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"The claims made by Environment America [Research and Policy Center] are egregiously inaccurate and misleading; we vigorously refute them. 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.
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. 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."
Sparkman noted that the company works hard to protect water with water management programs and staff experts who help Tyson improve how it uses and manages water. He also notes Tyson has been reporting its water usage since 2005 in an effort to be transparent about its work.
We've asked Environment Texas Research and Policy Center for its response to Sparkman's statements. We'll update as soon as we hear back.
We've also asked Pilgrim's Pride for comment and we'll update as soon as we hear back from that company as well.