Emission of Hazardous Substances in Nebraska
Federal law guarantees American citizens the right to know whether industries in their midst are emitting hazardous substances in amounts large enough to potentially cause a threat to human health and welfare. Congress provided the public this right in the aftermath of chemical releases from a Union Carbide plant in Bhophal, India, where more than 2,500 people were killed by a release of methyl isocyanate, and a domestic release of toxic chemicals in West Virginia.
In 1999, IBP, Inc., the largest meat-packer in the world, belatedly admitted that it emitted more than 1,200 and as much as 1,919 pounds of hydrogen sulfide each and every day from its 200-acre complex of facilities located near Dakota City, Nebraska, between 10 and 20 times the level that triggers emergency reporting to EPA and local authorities. Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless gas, heavier than air, which is deadly in high concentrations and in low concentrations can result in nausea, headache, and shortness of breath, sleep disturbance, and eye and throat irritation.
This did not come as a surprise to the local populace, which had been complaining about IBP’s emissions to state and federal agencies for years. For many years, however, during which IBP clearly knew that its emissions exceeded the level triggering the reporting requirements, the company never submitted the required legal notice to the appropriate federal, state or local authorities.
In 1999, some 5,000 head of cattle were slaughtered and between 4,000 to 5,000 hides tanned at the IBP facility. As IBP expanded its complex to this capacity, however, it failed to install required air pollution control equipment, and as a result, illegally emitted an excessive amount of hydrogen sulfide into the air. IBP additionally treated approximately 4 million gallons of ammonia contaminated wastewater, which was then discharged to the Missouri River, posing a substantial threat to aquatic life.
Partnering with the State of Nebraska, Justice’s Environmental Enforcement Section (EES) -- on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- filed a lawsuit against IBP in 2000, and eventually secured full environmental compliance from IBP through two Consent Decrees filed in 2000 and 2001. Under the twin settlements, IBP:
- covered waste lagoons and control hydrogen sulfide emissions, at an estimated cost of $13 million;
- agreed to a water treatment project designed to strip its incoming well water of sulfates, thereby further reducing the plant’s generation of hydrogen sulfide;
- construct additional wastewater treatment systems at its Dakota City plant to reduce its discharges of ammonia to the Missouri River.
- paid $4.1 million in civil penalties under the settlement;
- spend approximately $10 million in improvements to resolve its violations at the Dakota City facility; and
- further reduce its discharge of pollutants to the air and water.
Air monitors installed under the settlement later showed dramatic reductions in hydrogen sulfide in the surrounding community as a result of the required improvements.
The final settlement also resolved additional violations at other IBP facilities in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Texas.