Meat Processing Plants Discharging Wastewater Beyond Permitted Levels
Meat processing plants often produce a high-BOD effluent that’s difficult to treat.
Decentralized treatment and waste-to-energy can be effective in reducing harmful effluent
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, 74 of 98 large meat processing facilities that discharged their wastewater into streams and rivers overshot their permitted volumes between 2016 and 2018. Worse, research from the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) shows that even plants that held to permit limits are actually discharging more than plants that are not in compliance, suggesting that in those cases, the EPA and state agencies may be granting overly liberal permits.
The volume of toxic wastewater being discharged is troubling, but where it’s being discharged is perhaps even more worrisome. Often, outfalls are in waterways that supply drinking water for out-of-the-way rural, lower-income, minority neighborhoods, creating both potential public health crises and public relations nightmares.
High Contaminant Load
The outflow from meat processing facilities is generally heavily laden with pathogens such as fecal bacteria, and contaminants such as phosphorus, nitrogen, sulfates, and chlorides. Between January 2016 and June 2018, some plants discharged as much nitrogen — 250,000 GPD — as a small city. The flood of pollutants nourishes excessive algal growth, which can lead to fish kills and transform rivers into biohazards. There was little or no enforcement noted.
Such facilities typically dispose of wastewater in three ways: Pumping it into waterways, spraying it onto fields, or sending it to local municipal or regional wastewater treatment plants, which may not be designed to handle it.
However they are released, the contaminants tend to find their way into the water table and water wells, sparking lawsuits over a wide range of health issues and even death.
Nearly 50% of the slaughterhouses studied by EIP operated in areas that can least afford to have their drinking water supply contaminated. And, approximately 33% are communities with high percentages of Latinos and people of color, where typically 30% of residents are living below the poverty line, twice the national average.
The EIP report characterized EPA standards for meat processing plants as outdated and in need of revision. The findings culminate in a set of recommendations that stress increased monitoring and enforcement to be instituted under the Clean Water Act, which also requires states to institute reductions beyond federal mandates as needed to remediate areas deemed impaired.
According to the report, laws should ban improper disposal of runoff. This includes spraying the effluent near wells and using municipal facilities that are not designed for meat processing wastewater. Finally, the EIP urged the EPA to step in if local authorities are not adequately enforcing laws governing wastewater discharge.
There are many obstacles to proper treatment of meat processing wastewater, but there are solutions that are becoming more and more viable as technology advances.
One obstacle is that many plants are located in areas that lack access to adequate centralized treatment systems. Whether these plants are in rural or urban settings, decentralized wastewater plants can bring treatment to exactly where it’s needed, without the need for expensive piping to tie into large, central plants.
One such solution is the Smart Packaged Aspiral™ system from Fluence. The portable units, which come in standard-sized shipping containers, use ultra-efficient membrane aerated biofilm reactor (MABR) technology to produce water that exceeds California’s Title 22 standard — clean enough for reuse in irrigation — while saving up to 90% of the energy used in conventional aerobic wastewater processing.
The units, which come in several capacities, are quickly commissioned and can be scaled to meet need by running the units in tandem. And, the units are neighborhood-friendly, producing low noise and odor, for use in more populous areas.
Another solution suitable for high-BOD meat processing wastewater is waste-to-energy technology, which uses anaerobic digestion to convert organic compounds into biogas and co-generated electricity, which can be used to power plant operations. In some operations, excess electricity is sold back to the grid.
In one example, when a major Italian chicken processing plant wanted to expand its operations, it turned to Fluence to both increase wastewater treatment capacity and to improve effluent to meet strict European Union guidelines for discharge into the environment.
With the addition of an aerobic digestion and a nitrification-denitrification unit to the plant’s existing WWTP, the plant treats high-BOD wastewater and meets limits for discharge into a nearby river. The process also significantly reduces sludge levels and produces more energy than needed to power plant operations.
How can Fluence help your business meet wastewater discharge regulations? Contact our experts to learn more about our sustainable solutions and financing options.