Judge gives government another crack at turkey processor for Clean Water Act violations

A federal judge dismissed criminal charges against House of Raeford Farms and a plant manager for the turkey processing giant today for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act, but left the door open for the US government to reopen prosecution.

US District Court Judge James A. Beaty ruled that dismissal was appropriate because prosecutors violated the Speedy Trial Act, but denied the defendants’ request to close the case for good, contending that “there would be a societal interest in protecting the public and re-prosecuting” the company and its plant manager. The hearing was held in a courtroom at the federal building in Winston-Salem.

Prosecutor Mary D. Carraway, assigned to the environmental crimes section at the US Justice Department, told the court the government intends to do just that. House of Raeford Farms, which employs more than 1,000 people in rural Hoke County (location), and plant manager Gregory Steenblock are defendants in the case.

“The people of the city of Raeford are best served by this case going to trial,” said prosecutor Daniel W. Dooher, also assigned to the environmental crimes section at Justice.

The most recent indictment against House of Raeford Farms and Steenblock alleges that in 2005 and 2006 the plant routinely made unauthorized releases of wastewater containing feathers, blood, internal organs and other body parts that bypassed pre-treatment tanks and dumped the contents directly into the city’s sewer.

Kearns Davis, a Greensboro lawyer with Brooks Pierce law firm who is representing House of Raeford Farms, said there is no evidence the company intentionally bypassed the pretreatment process.

“Nobody’s opening up a valve,” he told the court. “Nobody’s hooking up a hose…. What’s happening is that a pre-treatment tank is not keeping up capacity.”

The government states that the plant in Raeford slaughtered more than 30,000 turkeys per day, five days a week, generating about 1 million gallons of wastewater on an average day. The government’s trial brief promises that city of Raeford employees will testify that they observed turkey parts, fats and grease at the city’s wastewater treatment plant that were discharged from the company’s overflow pipe. The government also plans to call former and current workers at the processing plant to testify that they informed Steenblock that the facility lacked capacity to process the wastewater, yet the problem continued.

The company maintains that it subsequently eliminated the problem in the fall of 2006 by replacing portions of its pretreatment plant at a cost of $1.4 million and paid the city almost $1 million in fines while the upgrade was being planned and implemented.

In support of its motion to dismiss, the company and its plant manager have noted that “due to effective treatment by the municipality, the alleged pollutants did not reach navigable waters."

The government rejected that argument, responding in writing: “Defendants contend that a violation of the law enacted to protect the navigable waters of the United States does not become ‘serious’ until their illegal discharges actually contaminate the nation’s waters. Such logic does not make the crimes any less serious, but would eviscerate the very purpose of the pretreatment provisions of the Clean Water Act.”

Judge Beaty’s dismissal of the original case stems from the government’s failure to bring the case to trial within 70 days of Steenblock’s indictment, as required by the Speedy Trial Act. Dooher called the omission a “mistake in which the government takes full responsibility,” but prosecutors argued in an earlier motion that they immediately notified the court when the Supreme Court declined to intervene in the case at the defendants’ request.

The company argued in its motion to dismiss that the drawn-out nature of the case has particularly harmed Steenblock.

“Of course, some of what appears in Mr. Steenblock’s motion is peculiar to him,” the motion reads. “Most significantly, the shadow cast by federal indictment is larger and darker. House of Raeford is an important part of its community — it employs more than 1,000 people in a rural North Carolina county — but the personal stress and strain of this case are more severe for Mr. Steenblock.”

Davis also said that negative publicity surrounding the case has caused the company untold financial losses.

“A press release by the government resulted in media coverage such that a customer brought a turkey back to a retailer and said, ‘Don’t you know who you’re doing business with?’ implying that House of Raeford Farms is a major environmental violator,” he said. “We have no way of knowing how many people elected to not buy turkeys because of the news coverage.”

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