EPA settles with egg producer over Clean Water Act violations

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division recently announced a settlement with Cal-Maine Foods, Inc., one of the nation's largest egg producers. The settlement resolves Clean Water Act violations at the company's poultry egg production facility in Mississippi.

According to the EPA Cal-Maine discharged pollutants from the production area into a tributary of a nearby creek, without authorization under their National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.

The company also applied wastewater containing nitrogen on fields at the facility during the winter, when land application is prohibited. The application also exceeded the rates required by the NPDES permit. Additionally, Cal-Maine is accused of committing hundreds of water sampling, recordkeeping and reporting violations.

Excessive nitrogen and phosphorus in water causes algae to grow faster than ecosystems can handle. These algal blooms create dead zones in water bodies where oxygen levels fall so low that aquatic life cannot survive. Nitrogen and phosphorus entering bodies of water is generally a result of human activities, particularly agricultural operations like Cal-Maine's.

"Clean Water Act violations from agricultural facilities can impair drinking water sources, transmit disease-causing bacteria, and endanger our lakes and rivers," said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. "When concentrated animal feeding operations discharge pollutants into U.S. waters, the law requires them to have a permit and comply with it. We're committed to enforcing the law to protect water quality for communities like the one where this facility is located."

The Justice Department added that the settlement would bring Cal-Maine into compliance with state and federal laws, and would ensure that communities near Edwards, Mississippi, where Cal-Maine is located, were protected.

This is important because the Edwards facility is located in a community that is already facing economic challenges, with half of all households bringing in an annual income of less than $25,000. One of the EPA's top priorities is to ensure that areas disproportionately affected by pollution — typically low income neighborhoods — are not left to fend for themselves.

Under the agreement with the EPA and the Justice Department Cal-Maine is developing procedures for egg production and land application that comply with NPDES permit regulations. The company is also instituting an employee training policy to improve recordkeeping and reporting practices. The plans for these procedures were reviewed and approved by the EPA and Mississippi officials. Cal-Maine intends to implement all changes by April 30, 2016.

The EPA estimates that Cal-Maine's changes will cut nitrogen discharges to U.S. waterways by about 89,000 pounds and phosphorus by 20,000 pounds per year. It will cost the company approximately $418,000 to implement the settlement requirements and bring the facility in compliance with state and federal clean water laws. This estimate is in addition to the $475,000 penalty the organization will pay for the Clean Water Act violations, which will be split between the U.S. Federal and Mississippi governments.

The NPDES permit program intends to control water pollution by regulating point sources that discharge pollutants into waters of the United States. Point sources are conveyances such as pipes or man-made ditches. Industrial, municipal and other facilities that discharge waste through point sources or directly to surface waters are required to obtain a permit for their operations.

Agricultural facilities that work with environmental consultants can ensure that they are in compliance with all state and federal regulations, allowing the company to continue operations unhindered.