Tyson Foods Is Dumping Millions Of Pounds Of Pollutants Into American Waterways

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Pollution pays. Fossil fuel companies are working overtime to prevent regulators from learning how much methane they are releasing into the atmosphere or how much of it they are flaring because there is no penalty for doing so. Now an investigation by the Union of Concerned Scientists reveals that Tyson Foods, one of the largest food processing companies in the world, has dumped 371 million pounds of pollutants — millions of pounds of toxic pollutants including nitrogen, phosphorus, chloride, oil, and cyanide — into American waterways in the past five years. Those pollutants, which are a threat to critical ecosystems and a danger to wildlife and human health, came from 41 Tyson slaughterhouses and processing plants between 2018 and 2022.

The Union of Concerned Scientists says the contaminants were dispersed in 87 billion gallons of wastewater that were released directly into streams, rivers, lakes, and wetlands relied upon by surrounding communities for drinking water, fishing, and recreation. That discharge water also contained blood, bacteria, and animal feces. The UCS analysis was shared exclusively with The Guardian and is based on the most recent publicly available water pollution data Tyson is required to report under current regulations. The water pollution from Tyson, a Fortune 100 company and the world’s second largest meat producer, was spread across 17 states, but about half the contaminants were dumped into streams, rivers, lakes, and wetlands in Nebraska, Illinois, and Missouri.

Before we dig into more of the UCS study, let’s play with some numbers. A 10 yard heavy-duty dump truck can carry around 30,000 pounds of stuff, according to Quora. We would need 12,367 dump trucks to carry 371 million pounds. Assuming it takes 15 minutes for a dump truck to pull up in front of your house, dump its load on your front lawn, and move on down the road to get another load, it would take 3,092 hours to deliver 371 million pounds of crud to you, which translates into 129 days! Just imagine four dump trucks loaded with crud backing up to your front door every hour of every day for four months. Oh my gosh, what a mess, huh? And yet nobody (except the Union of Concerned Scientists, apparently) worries about why Tyson Foods — not to mention other industrial polluters — has a social license to dump their waste products into community assets that are an extension of your front yard, metaphorically speaking.

The answer, as CleanTechnica readers who are all above average know, is the flaw in the capitalist model known as “untaxed externalities.” If corporations are able to put the burden of cleaning up the mess they make on the shoulders of the community at large, well then — à la peanut butter sandwiches! — that means there is more money to fatten the compensation packages of executives and pay dividends to shareholders. It’s a process frequently referred to as privatizing the profits and socializing the costs of doing business.

Tyson Foods & Government Overreach

The UCS research only includes water pollution from a third of Tyson Foods slaughterhouses and processing plants and only 2% of the total nationwide. The Midwest region of the United States is already saturated with nitrogen and phosphorus from industrial agriculture — factory farms that use stunning amounts of synthetics fertilizer. All that crud in the water leads to algae blooms that clog critical water infrastructure, exacerbate respiratory conditions like asthma, and deplete oxygen levels in the sea, causing marine life to suffocate and die.

The current federal regulations set no limit for phosphorus, and the vast majority of meat processing plants in the US are exempt from existing water regulation. Currently, there is no way to accurately track how many toxins are being dumped into America’s waterways. “There are over 5,000 meat and poultry processing plants in the United States, but only a fraction are required to report pollution and abide by limits. As one of the largest processors in the game, with a near-monopoly in some states, Tyson Foods is in a unique position to treat even hefty fines and penalties for polluting as simply the cost of doing business. This has to change,” said Omanjana Goswami, a co-author of the UCS report, who says the EPA should listen to the communities whose wells, lakes, rivers, and streams have been contaminated and put people over corporate profits.

A 2017 lawsuit by environmental groups has forced the EPA to update its decades-old pollution standards for slaughterhouses and animal rendering facilities. The EPA is expected to issue those updated rules by September of 2025. The agency has said that it is leaning towards the weakest option on the table, which critics say will enable huge amounts of nitrates, phosphorus, and other contaminants to keep pouring into waterways.

“The current rule is out of date, inadequate and catastrophic for American waterways, and highlights the way American lawmaking is subject to industry capture,” said Dani Replogle, an attorney at Food and Water Watch. “The nutrient problem in the US is at catastrophic levels … it would be such a shame if the EPA caves in to industry influence.”

The meat processing industry spent $4.3 million on lobbying the federal government in 2023. Tyson Foods accounted for almost half — $2.1 million — according to political finance watchdog Open Secrets. The industry has made $6.6 million in campaign donations since 2020, mostly to Republicans, with Tyson Foods being the biggest corporate spender. “Meat and poultry companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with EPA’s effluent limitations guidelines,” said Sarah Little from the North American Meat Institute, a trade association representing large processors like Tyson. “EPA’s new proposed guidelines will cost over $1 billion and will eliminate 100,000 jobs in rural communities.”

Tyson Foods Wants You To Pay To Clean Up Its Mess

And there it is, right out in the open where anyone with eyes can see it. The standard industry response to any regulation proposal is that it is too expensive and will lead to people losing their jobs. But what Tyson Foods is really saying is that it shouldn’t have to pay to clean up its own mess. Can any economic system endure that passes part of the costs of doing business off on the community? Does getting a corporate charter automatically confer a right to force those who derive no profits from the business to subsidize it in perpetuity? Tyson Foods thinks so, as the idea of privatizing the profits and socializing the costs is now deeply ingrained in corporate culture.

“This Tyson Foods plant [in Dakota City, Nebraska] helped put me through college and supports a lot of migrant workers, but there’s a dark side like the water and air pollution that most people don’t pay attention to because they’re just trying to survive,” Rogelio Rodriguez, a grassroots organizer with Conservation Nebraska, told The Guardian. That organization is part of a coalition pushing for stronger state protections for meat processing plant workers. “If regulations are lax, corporations have a tendency to push limits to maximize profits,” he added.

A few miles south of the Dakota City processing plant, the Winnebago tribe is slowly reforesting their land and transitioning to organic farming. “We’re investing a lot of money to look after the water and soil on our lands because it’s the right thing to do, yet a few miles north the Tyson plant lets all this pollution go into the river. Water is our most important resource, and the Missouri river is very important to our culture and people,” said Aaron LaPointe, a Winnebago tribe member who runs Ho-Chunk Farms.

Big Ag’s influence in Nebraska state politics is “endemic,” according to Gavin Geis from Common Cause Nebraska, a non-partisan elections watchdog. “The big money spent on lobbying and campaigns by corporate agriculture has played a major role in resisting stronger regulation — despite clear signals such as high levels of nitrates in our groundwater and cancers in rural communities that we need more oversight for farmers across the board,” he told The Guardian. “We’ve created a system with no accountability that doesn’t protect our ecosystem — which includes the land, water and people of Nebraska,” said Graham Christensen, a regenerative farmer and founder of GC Resolve, a communication and consulting firm. “The political capture is harming our rural communities. We’re in the belly of the beast and need help from federal regulators.”

Oxygen depleting contaminants like nitrogen and phosphorus from Tyson Foods plants in the Midwest have been shown to travel along river to river pathways, causing fish kills and contributing to dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. When the rivers are drier due to drought or high temperatures, pollutants become more concentrated and can form sediments — which are then dislodged during floods and taken miles downstream. Global heating is making extreme weather increasingly common. As droughts dry up underground aquifers, tribes will probably need to turn to the Missouri for drinking water, according to Tim Grant, director of environmental protection for the Omaha tribe. “We’re very concerned about what’s in the river. It’s an important part of our culture and traditions,” said Grant, who has started testing the fish for toxins.

The Takeaway

George Cunningham, a retired aquatic ecologist and Missouri River expert at Sierra Club Nebraska, told The Guardian, “Poor environmental regulation is down to the stranglehold industrial agriculture has on politics at every level. It’s about political capture.” That pretty much says it all. Without clean water, people die. Indigenous people have known this for thousands of years. It is one of the primary reasons that they have been deeply involved in protesting things like oil and gas pipelines that cross vulnerable waterways.

We, the descendants of immigrants from “nice countries,” have ignored the collective wisdom of Indigenous people for more than 600 years. We may think we are smarter, bolder, more empowered by our Creator to ride roughshod over the land. It has worked pretty well, so far. But we are now beginning to see the results of our steadfast belief that we can do anything we want to the Earth forever and a day without paying any price. The ultimate untaxed externality is an overheating planet that may not be able to sustain human life for much longer. That should raise a question in some people’s minds about which cultural values are sustainable and which are not.

Tyson Foods is just a representative for a larger corporate culture in which “political capture” is the ultimate goal. Game the system, as Lewis Powell advised in 1971, so that corporations become the sovereigns of America, not the people. It may be time to rethink if the principles Powell espoused are still relevant in an era in which degradation of the environment threatens the health of all people, born and unborn.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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