By far the largest poultry producer in the region is Pilgrim's Pride, owned by native Texan Lonnie "Bo" Pilgrim. Pilgrim's Pride now ranks among the top 5 poultry producers in the country and in recent years has expanded operations across the border to Mexico. In the Cypress Creek basin alone, Pilgrim's Pride raises as many as 99,000,000 birds per year and then dumps over 100,000 tons of chicken waste and litter onto the land as fertilizer.(4)
By TNRCC definition, Pilgrim's Pride uses a 'dry waste' management system to dispose of waste from its poultry houses. But since TNRCC does not require permits for those CAFOs which use a 'dry waste' system, Pilgrim's Pride and similar facilities are exempt from many of the state's CAFO environmental regulations.
Pilgrim's East Texas Chicken Empire
Bo Pilgrim owns more than just 99 million broiler chickens and egg layers. The Pilgrim's Pride Corporation closely follows the industry model of vertical integration, incorporating all aspects of production under the management of one company. Bo Pilgrim owns virtually every aspect of production, from breeder animals and adult birds to slaughterhouses and processing plants, and the company distributes its own products as well. Many of these facilities are concentrated in Camp County and Titus County, especially in the towns of Mt. Pleasant and Pittsburg.
Many local residents complain about the odors and contamination from the poultry-growing facilities, and just as many citizens worry about contamination from the company's processing facilities and wastewater treatment plants. CAFO-related problems are widespread: Odors from chicken houses create nuisance conditions for residents, dust from feedmills affect air quality, wastewater discharges contaminate local waterways, and run-off of nutrients and contaminants such as arsenic and selenium (feed additives) from chicken waste affect water quality. A 1999 study conducted by TNRCC for the Texas legislature also discovered elevated fecal coliform levels in some creeks near highly concentrated poultry houses.(5)
Pilgrim Neighbors Suffer from Pride's Pollution
Lola Barrett is a great-grandmother and life-long resident of Mt. Pleasant, Texas and has experienced firsthand the effects of the concentrated poultry industry in the area. Her house and property are separated from Pilgrim's wastewater treatment plant by Tankersley Creek, which runs between them. Barrett watches from her home as Pilgrim's discharges grease, oil, and wastewater into the creek, which has created layers of fatty foam, and once even a 6-foot high wall of foam, through the creek bed. Sludge is also removed from the wastewater treatment tanks and hauled off for spreading on nearby land, causing fish kills.
Living next to the facility has taken its toll on Barrett. Although she is an avid gardener, she rarely leaves her house anymore. Chronic respiratory problems which her doctors can only diagnose as "bronchitis" have sent her to the hospital several times in the last year, and force her to use a breathing apparatus four times a day.
Barrett has been outspoken about the effects of Pilgrim's operations on residents of Mt. Pleasant. She keeps a collection of photos documenting years of violations at the facility and attends hearings at TNRCC whenever a new Pilgrim's operating permit is up for discussion. Barrett is particularly concerned about Pilgrim's latest permit request to build another processing plant on 4000 acres in Camp County. After years of complaints about waste disposal from his facilities, this time Bo Pilgrim is proposing a new method of disposal: six deep injection wells in which wastewater will be pumped below the ground. Barrett and others fear that the injected waste will filter into the aquifer system and contaminate their well water.
Residents have expressed their concerns to TNRCC, but Barrett feels that her efforts over the years have not done much to improve the situation. After a particularly bad month in which Barrett called TNRCC sixteen times to report various violations at the Pilgrim's facility, she decided that the agency had simply gotten "tired" of responding to her concerns. Discouraged, she says that these days she rarely calls the agency to complain anymore, although she does continue to document violations with photos.(6)
Shameful History of Violations
Many of the violations that Lola Barrett has documented are a matter of public record. The Mt. Pleasant wastewater treatment plant has been cited on numerous occasions by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Texas Water Commission for repeatedly violating the terms of its discharge permit.(7) But rather than clean up its facility, Pilgrim's Pride responded by requesting a 25% increase in its permitable discharge limit.(8)
Pilgrim's other facilities also have a long history of violations. Between 1986 and 1996 alone, the company amassed over $900,000 in fines through 68 violations (including seven federal water violations), 25 notices of violations, more than 100 official complaints, and seven out-of-court settlements (Agreed Orders).(9) In one case, Pilgrim's was fined $325,000 for violations that included nuisance odors from the spreading of entire chicken parts (feathers, feet, beaks, etc.) on land as fertilizer.(10)
TNRCC Continues to Permit Pilgrim's
Despite repeated violations, TNRCC has rarely failed to approve a permit application from Pilgrim's Pride for new or expanding facilities. And local residents express little hope that things will change in the near future. As the dominant employer in the region, many residents work at Pilgrim's facilities and are not likely to speak out for fear of losing their jobs. Susan Nugent, a resident who lived adjacent to one of Pilgrim's poultry CAFOs in Pittsburg, Texas until recently also believes that politics play a role in how strictly the state regulates Pilgrim's Pride. "I'm not happy with the fact that [Governor Bush] takes massive amounts of money from Bo Pilgrim," she says. "I'm not happy with the fact that Bo Pilgrim goes to the Governor's mansion for a Christmas party and comes back to Pittlsburg and brags about his relationship with Governor Bush-when folks like me sure can't get an audience with Governor Bush." (11) For now then, it seems that Bo Pilgrim will remain the reigning Chicken King of East Texas.
Join Texas PEER soon for another stop on the Texas Toxic Tour.
- Texas Agriculture Statistics Service (TASS), www.io.com/~tass/tplegvl.htm,
- Barker, J.C., Hodges, S.C., and Campbell, C.R. 2000. "Livestock Manure Production Rates and Nutrient Content," in: 2000 North Carolina Agricultural Chemicals Manual, Chapter 10, North Carolina State University, p. 1.
- TNRCC, Poultry Operations Study (January 1999), Appendix C and Appendix A.
- TNRCC, Poultry Operations Study (1999), Appendix C, p. 4.
- TNRCC, Poultry Operations Study (January 1999), Appendix C.
- Interview with Lola Barrett May 12, 2000
- Rich, Jan, "State squawks foul over fowl empire, pollution," Houston Chronicle, September 27, 1985, p. 1; Jacobs, Janet, "Pilgrim's admits to water violations," Longview Journal, March 24, 1996; Letter to Ms. Lola Barrett from Anthony Grigsby, Texas Water Commission, no date.
- Letter to John Witherspoon, TNRCC, from Tim Weir, Pilgrim's Pride, RE: Annual Compliance Inspection, April 14, 1995.
- Longview Journal, March 24, 1996.
- TNRCC, Agreed Order Assessing Administrative Penalties and Requiring Certain Actions of Pilgrim's Pride Corporation, Randee Corporation, Winston Land and Cattle Company, and John R. Winston Jr. under the Authority of the Texas Water Code, Chapters 5 and 26, and the Texas Health and Safety Code, Chapters 361 and 382, Docket No. 94-0378-IWD-E, July 27, 1995 (received).
- Interview with Susan Nugent, May 12, 2000