Tyson Foods: A Bigger Polluter Than ExxonMobil?

Tyson Foods, water pollution, EPA, water stewardship, Leon Kaye, nitrates, chicken farms, meat industry
Tyson is accused of being one of the largest water polluters in the U.S.

Just as Tyson Foods’ shareholders recently voted down a proposal to implement a water stewardship policy, a Boston-based environmental advocacy group has charged the chicken-processing giant of being one of the most polluting companies operating within the U.S.

Environment America has accused Tyson, its subsidiaries and contract chicken farms of releasing at least 104 million pounds of pollutants into surface waters across the continental U.S. from 2010 to 2014. Based on publicly-related data available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that amount of water pollution is far more than organizations such as Koch Industries, the U.S. Department of Defense, Cargill and International Paper — and more than seven times the amount that ExxonMobil released during the same period.

Most of the pollutants Tyson has discharged, according to Environment America, are nitrates from fertilizers, which find their way into rivers, lakes and groundwater. Manure from contract farms and waste from meat industry processing plants also contribute to what Environment America says are enlarging algae-infested “dead zones” that can be found from the Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. Furthermore, Environment America and its allies in the responsible investment community infer that the amount of pollution for which Tyson is responsible is even greater. Under U.S. law, however, Tyson is only required to report pollution from its food processing plants to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory.

As a result, a coalition led by the American Baptist Home Mission Society and the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia urged shareholders to vote on a resolution pushing the $34 billion company to improve its performance on water issues. They called for Tyson to adopt new practices that would have limited the polluting effects of nitrates; develop more transparent measures reduce the number of water polluting incidents; draft a timeline of goals; and regularly disclose the company’s process on water management across its operations. That resolution went no where, and in fact, lost by an almost eight-to-one margin.

So far Tyson has ignored the allegations, choosing instead to report on efforts related to community hunger programs and new jobs at a North Carolina bakery plant. Nevertheless, the company has not been able to fly completely under the radar: Tyson was sued in 2014 for a massive wastewater discharge in Missouri. A decade earlier, it was among six poultry companies that paid the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a total of $7.3 million in order to settle charges that use of chicken fertilizer contributed to high amounts of phosphorous in the municipal water system.

Well connected and able to tout its role as a leading employer in the U.S. (although the company faces its share of litigation on this front, too), Tyson has been able to fend off many environmental allegations over the years. But these recent statistics, disclosed by the company itself, has now put the company in the crosshairs of many environmental groups and activist investors that insist the company can do much better.

Image credit: Tyson Foods

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

One response

  1. I work for Tyson Foods and want people to know that water is a critical natural resource and we work hard to protect it. That’s why we vigorously refute these misleading claims by Environment America. The water we use is returned to streams and rivers only after it’s been properly treated by wastewater treatment systems that are government-regulated and permitted.

    The data Environment America is misinterpreting is the information we regularly provide the EPA about the treated water we release from our wastewater treatment systems.

    We have programs, policies and experts on staff to help us continually improve how we manage water. We’ve reported water usage as part of our sustainability report since 2005. However, in an effort to be even more transparent about our water management efforts, we will be part of the Carbon Disclosure Project Water Questionnaire in 2016.

    EPA recently announced its posting of the 2014 Toxics Release Inventory, the same data Environment America relies on. For more information about what factors people should consider when using the Toxics Release Inventory data, you might consider visiting EPA’s Basics of TRI Reporting page.

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