TUCKER, Ga. — Processing and producing safe poultry products for consumption in the United States and abroad requires the use of a substantial amount of water. However, the water needed to generate these wholesome poultry products is not consumed. Rather, the water used during processing is recycled back into the environment to be reused again. Prior to recycling the water back into the environment, it undergoes various levels of treatment and is often discharged in a condition that is cleaner than the body of water that it is discharged into.
Virtually every poultry production facility operates a wastewater treatment plant. However, the level of treatment that each wastewater treatment plant must achieve is established differently.
The discharge limits for poultry wastewater treatment plants that discharge directly to a body of water are required to obtain a permit through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which is a program that was established under the Federal Clean Water Act.
These permits are issued by states that have obtained approval by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue them or directly from the EPA in states that do not have EPA granted authority. These permits are written to address the specific conditions of the facility, including the pollutants contained in the wastewater and the water quality of the receiving stream that receives the treatment plant’s effluent.
Poultry wastewater treatment plants that discharge to a sanitary sewer system owned by a local municipality are not required to obtain a NPDES permit. In most cases the discharge standards or limitations for these types of discharges, otherwise known as indirect dischargers, are set by the local municipality through sewer ordinances or municipal permits.
Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA publishes Effluent Limitation Guidelines (ELGs) and discharge standards specific to various industries. ELGs are technology-based limitations and are based on the performance of proven wastewater treatment technologies. ELGs apply to facilities that discharge to bodies of water, while historically, pretreatment standards apply to discharges from industrial facilities to publicly owned treatment works (POTWs).
The Clean Water Act requires the EPA to review the ELGs and standards for the various industrial categories each year and revise them if appropriate. Additionally, the EPA is required to publish a plan that establishes a schedule for annual reviews, revisions and promulgation of any guidelines not previously established.
In September 2021, the EPA announced that it was initiating a rulemaking to revise ELGs or pretreatment standards for the meat and poultry industries. The EPA indicated the driver for the revision was the need to establish ELGs for the industry’s indirect dischargers, a task they did not perform the last time the EPA revised the meat and poultry industry ELGs in 2004.
The announcement indicated there was an estimated 7,000 indirect discharge facilities nationwide that were discharging without pretreatment standards, and data indicates the meat and poultry facilities are causing problems for municipal wastewater treatment plants that are receiving their effluent.
While there are many meat and poultry facilities included on the list EPA provided for review, the total number of meat and poultry facilities that discharge wastewater directly or indirectly are far from 7,000. The overwhelming majority of the facilities listed were businesses like restaurants, delicatessens, and specialty food companies.
The announcement’s claim that, “73 percent of the POTWs receiving Meat and Poultry (MPP) wastewater have violation(s) of permit limits for pollutants found in MPP wastewater,” is somewhat deceiving because many the pollutants EPA listed, like total suspended solids, oil and grease, and Biological Oxygen Demand, are common to all types of wastewater. Nonetheless, EPA’s decision to move forward with the revision had been made.
Following the EPA’s announcement, USPOULTRY reached out to the agency to participate in the process EPA is required to take when proposing a revision. This includes attending site visits to wastewater treatment facilities to understand the current processes and technology used, seeking approval from the federal government to issue an “Information Collection Request,” collect and compile facility data, including production volumes, wastewater characteristics and company financial data, and collecting wastewater samples to characterize the strength and volume of wastewater generated at a facility.
The tasks listed above have been completed. EPA personnel provided industry representatives with an update during a meeting held during the International Production & Processing Expo in January of this year. This update indicated that the agency is currently in the process of performing an engineering analysis. This analysis will include an assessment of the current technology being employed at industry wastewater treatment facilities.
The engineering analysis will also begin to assess compliance costs associated with more stringent limitations and evaluate the pollutant pass through effect on downstream municipal wastewater treatment plants.
Future tasks will include an environmental assessment and an economic analysis. In other words, the investments our industry will need to make in order to install new equipment that is capable of treating wastewater to more rigorous discharge limitations.
During the meeting EPA personnel indicated the scope of the new regulation will likely lower nitrogen and phosphorus limits for direct and indirect dischargers, require the removal of chlorides and establish federal pretreatment standards for other pollutants that would override standards established by current industry-municipality agreements.
EPA has indicated they plan to publish the proposed Rule by December 2023, at which time all stakeholders will be given an opportunity to comment on the proposed revisions to the ELGs. Between now and December, USPOULTRY will continue to work with the agency on behalf of the poultry and egg industries to ensure the process is scientifically and procedurally robust and transparent.
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Paul Bredwell is executive vice president of regulatory programs with the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association based in Tucker, Ga. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.