Indictment: Poultry plant wouldn't slow wastewater

AP News
Posted: Dec 01, 2009 5:22 PM

A poultry plant facing federal charges of discharging water containing untreated turkey waste wouldn't slow its processes after its output of polluted water overwhelmed its onsite treatment capacity, a federal indictment released Tuesday said.

A federal grand jury on Monday indicted House of Raeford Farms and plant manager Gregory Steenblock on 14 counts of violating the federal Clean Water Act. The indictment accuses the company and Steenblock of knowingly bypassing its water treatment system at its Raeford turkey processing plant 14 times between 2005 and 2006. The wastewater was sent directly to the city's municipal sewage treatment works, the indictment said.

The bypasses and failure to report them violated an earlier agreement by House of Raeford to stop releasing untreated waste from the plant where more than 30,000 turkeys a day are processed, federal prosecutors said.

The city of Raeford had fined the poultry producer about $239,000 between 2002 and 2005, city manager Richard Douglas said in 2005. About 90 percent of industrial sewer fines levied by the city of about 3,500 in 2004 were against its largest employer.

The indictment said the treatment system at the House of Raeford processing plant couldn't handle the daily flow of 1 million gallons of wastewater containing turkey feathers, blood, internal organs and other body parts.

House of Raeford "employees in the processing area would not release the untreated wastewater at a slower rate," the indictment said.

Between January 2005 and August 2006, "wastewater operators would bypass pretreatment" at units where grease was skimmed out of the discharge and workers would "discharge the untreated wastewater directly to the sewer and the Raeford" sewer plant.

Most industries are required to treat their wastewater before it leaves a production site to remove pollutants that municipal sewage plants may not be equipped to cleanse.

City and state officials said they did not know whether the company's alleged actions put the public at risk.

The company said it completed a $1.4 million pretreatment facility in September 2006. "It worked as designed. The problems were solved," the company said in a statement.

If convicted, the company could face a maximum fine of $500,000 per count. Steenblock could face a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine per count.

House of Raeford Farms said it and its employees are innocent. "We look forward to a full and fair hearing of the facts," the company. Steenblock did not return a call to his home Tuesday.

The company processes chickens and turkeys in eight plants in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and Michigan.

Privately owned House of Raeford has had frequent battles with regulators.

A subsidiary, Columbia Farms Inc., was charged with knowingly hiring illegal immigrants after a raid at its Greenville, S.C., plant last year rounded up hundreds of suspect workers. Columbia Farms last month agreed to pay a $1.5 million fine and change its hiring practices in a deal that gives it two years to get in line with federal hiring practices. Prosecutors could pursue their case again if the company doesn't comply.

Last year, North Carolina regulators fined the company $178,000 after allegedly finding more than two dozen serious workplace safety violations at a plant in Teachey, according to federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration records.

Several of the violations involved hazardous chemicals and came after a chlorine gas leak at the company's plant in Rose Hill in 2003 killed one employee and sent two others to the hospital.

In 2004, a major ammonia leak forced an evacuation of the plant and 17 workers went to the hospital with respiratory problems.

In 2005, the U.S. Agriculture Department ordered the Raeford turkey plant closed to force the company to fix uncorrected problems that could lead to food poisoning. The plant had been cited repeatedly for violations dating back months that had not been satisfactorily resolved, including a leaky roof and employee hygiene, an agency spokesman said.