On Sept. 27, 2017, Tyson Poultry, Inc. (“Tyson”) pled guilty in federal court to two criminal charges of violating the Clean Water Act. The violations related to discharges from Tyson’s slaughter and processing facility in Monett, Mo. According to court filings, in May 2014, a tank used to store a low-pH liquid food supplement at Tyson’s Aurora, Mo. feed mill sprang a leak, causing the acidic substance to flow into a secondary containment area. Tyson hired a contractor to remove the substance from the secondary containment system and transport it to Tyson’s Monett plant, where it was unloaded into the in-house treatment system. However, Tyson’s in-house treatment system was not designed to treat such waste, and as a result, some of the waste made its way into the city of Monett’s municipal waste water treatment plant, where it killed bacteria used to reduce ammonia from the municipal waste water treatment plant’s discharges. This caused water with elevated ammonia levels to be discharged into a local creek, which resulted in the death of approximately 108,000 fish.

Pursuant to the terms of Tyson’s plea agreement, it will pay a $2 million criminal fine and serve two years of probation. In addition, it will pay $500,000 to maintain and restore waters in the Monett area, with a focus on the creek and adjoining waterways where the ammonia-laden water was discharged. Tyson will also implement environmental compliance programs, including:

  1. Hiring an independent, third-party auditor to examine all of Tyson’s poultry facilities in the United States to assess Clean Water Act and hazardous waste compliance.
  2. Conducting specialized environmental training at Tyson’s poultry processing plants, hatcheries, feed mills, rendering plants and waste water treatment plants.
  3. Implementing improved policies and procedures to address the circumstances that gave rise to these violations.

Tyson’s plea agreement demonstrates several important aspects of the Clean Water Act, including:

  1. The significant criminal liability that can attach to Clean Water Act violations (including for mistakes resulting from “negligent” conduct).
  2. The significant costs that can result from a single violation of the Clean Water Act (i.e., criminal penalties, environmental restoration costs, increased costs to ensure environmental compliance, public relations costs).
  3. The criminal liability that a company can face by having non-compliant wastewater discharges to a municipal waste water treatment plant (i.e., Tyson did not discharge its wastewater directly into a body of water, but nonetheless faced criminal liability because it caused a failure at the municipal waste water treatment facility that received Tyson’s wastewater).