Tyson Foods’ Missouri problem risks millions in government contracts

story by Kim Souza
ksouza@thecitywire.com

Tyson Foods could lose around $500 million in government contracts if found guilty in and ongoing criminal probe by the Environmental Protection Agency over the recent release of toxic chemicals at a plant in Monett, Mo.

Since 2000 the U.S. government has awarded Tyson Foods more than $4.7 billion in contract business, but guilty findings in the Monett investigation could end all or some of that lucrative business arrangement.

Tyson Foods doesn’t have a sterling eco-friendly record, and the number of incidents in recent years in Missouri raise concerns among environmental circles. The meat giant’s latest mistake sent Aliment tainted wastewater into the city’s wastewater plant which released high levels of ammonia into Monett’s water system. The ammonia killed an estimated 100,000 fish in a four-mile stretch, according to lawsuits filed in the case. 

“We’re cooperating with the Environmental Protection Agency in its investigation, as we have with state and local agencies regarding this incident. Unfortunate events like this bring increased awareness to the environmental risks we manage. Following this incident, we've worked with all of our feed mills on procedures designed to ensure this does not happen again,” said Worth Sparkman, a corporate spokesman for Tyson Foods.

Tyson said the Aliment, an additive used in chicken feed, was hauled to the Monett site from its feed mill in Aurora and inadvertently mixed in Tyson’s pretreated wastewater system. The state’s report notes that Tyson did not immediately notify the city’s wastewater plant of possible contamination, but instead tried to clean up the accident once the mistake was realized.

Scott Edwards, a litigator for the Food & Water Justice arm of Food and Water Watch, said Tyson and other poultry plants and wastewater mishaps are nothing new. He said the criminal probe this time is more serious in nature. 

“They (Tyson) will find a scapegoat to blame, pay the fines and move on. I will be shocked it they actually lose their government contracts given their influential lobby,” Edwards said.

He said the EPA could send a strong signal by pulling contracts if Tyson is found criminally responsible. The threat is real as noted in Tyson Foods‘ Aug. 7 10-Q filing with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. The filing notes a civil lawsuit filed by the Missouri Attorney General’s office.

“That lawsuit alleges six violations stemming from the incident and seeks penalties against us, compensation for damage to the stream, and reimbursement for the State of Missouri’s costs in investigating the matter,” according to Tyson.

Edwards said the civil suit is likely to result in a hefty fine, with some promised safeguard to prevent future incidents. But, the problems will likely continue to resurface in other facilities because the Band-aids applied don’t usually stick.

It is the EPA action that could be a big financial hit.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also indicated to us that it has begun a criminal investigation into the incident. If we become subject to criminal charges, we may be subject to a fine and other relief, as well as government contract suspension and debarment. We are cooperating with the Environmental Protection Agency but cannot predict the outcome of its investigation at this time,” Tyson noted in the filing.

As if that is not enough, actions against Tyson could come from other sources.

“It is also possible that other regulatory agencies may commence investigations and allege additional violations. Finally, we may be subject to claims from the city of Monett for causing it to violate various municipal regulations and for damages to the city’s treatment system,” Tyson noted.

Edwards said proving criminal intent is harder to do than having Tyson plead to negligence. 

The EPA said its criminal enforcement division has a 90% conviction rate and is responsible for pouring through documents, computer records and collecting samples in order to bring those responsible to justice.

PREVIOUS SETTLEMENTS
Tyson is no stranger to environmental issues. The nation’s largest meat company  operates more than 60 processing and slaughter facilities across the U.S. In Missouri Tyson operates five facilities and employs some 4,700 workers. Two of those Missouri plants have recorded prior accidents in which Tyson settled.

• April 2013
The EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice announced a $3.95 million settlement with Tyson Foods from accidental chemical releases of anhydrous ammonia at facilities in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska. Between 2006 and 2010 there were eight separate incidents involving anhydrous ammonia. Tyson agreed to purchase $300,000 worth of emergency response equipment for first responders in communities with significant environmental justice concerns in which Tyson operates facilities.

• November 2012
Tyson discovered a fish kill during an inspection of tributary to Muddy Creek, resulting from chlorine toxicity from its poultry processing plant in Sedalia, Mo. Between 200 and 300 fish were killed from the toxic wastewater leak. Tyson cleaned the site by adding 26,000 gallons of potable water back into the stream. The state charged Tyson $3,367 for extra man hours overseeing the work.

• June 2003
Tyson plead guilty to 20 felony counts and settled with the EPA and the Department of Justice for $7.5 million for violations of the Clean Water Act. Tyson admitted to having illegally discharged untreated wastewater from its poultry processing plant near Sedalia. Mo. into a tributary of the Lamine River.  

Under two pleadings, Tyson agreed to pay $5.5 million in penalty to the federal government, $1 million in penalty to the state, and $1 million to the Missouri Natural Resources Protection Fund to help remedy the harm caused by the illegal discharges. 

In addition, Tyson has agreed to hire an outside consultant to perform an environmental audit and then to implement an enhanced environmental management program based upon the audit’s findings to assure that the Sedalia facility will remain in compliance with all applicable environmental laws and regulations.

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Between 1996 and 2001, Tyson repeatedly discharged untreated or inadequately treated wastewater from its Sedalia plant in violation of its permit. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources cited the plant several times and the State of Missouri filed two lawsuits against Tyson in an effort to stop its illegal discharges. Tyson continued to discharge untreated wastewater through its storm drains, in spite of the company’s assurances that the discharges would stop and even after numerous warnings, administrative orders, two state court injunctions, and the execution of a federal search warrant at the Sedalia facility, according to the settlement records.

PATTERN OF MISHAPS
Tyson acknowledged a September 2013 settlement of $305,000 with the Department of Justice over a North Carolina facility that dumped about 210,000 gallons of rendered chicken byproducts into Hunting Creek, a tributary of the South Yadkin River in 2010.
The North Carolina state environmental agency fined Tyson $8,375 for the incident. 

Between July 28 and Aug.12, 2011, Arkansas Department of Environment Quality notes that it inspected Tyson’s wastewater collection system near at its Clarksville, Ark., plant. The AEDQ report notes that raw wastewater had entered an unnamed tributary of Potlicker Creek causing pollution and violating Arkansas’ Water and Air Pollution Control Act. 

AEDQ notes that Tyson addressed the problem by pumping out 1.031 million gallons of water from Potlicker Creek and spreading about 1,250 pounds of lime over the land areas to help with the odor. Tyson said then it was minimizing the risk of future breaks from happening again with plans to reinforce pipes in the system.

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