Fouled nest

For more than a year, chicken tycoon Bo Pilgrim has been casting about East Texas for a place to build his next processing plant. But the reputation of Pilgrim's Pride as one of the state's worst polluters has doggedly pursued his company, causing doors to slam in communities that do not want the notorious chicken outfit setting up shop in their midst. ("Bo? Hell No!" Dallas Observer, February 22.)

Last week, Pilgrim hoped for a little home-field advantage in his latest bid to build the plant near Pittsburg, Texas, site of the company's corporate headquarters. After being spurned by the other towns it approached, Pilgrim's Pride is now trying to construct the new plant on 50 acres about 5 miles north of Pittsburg, where much of the local economy depends on the company.

But to do that, Pilgrim's Pride needs the state's permission to dump up to 2.5 million gallons a day of wastewater into Big Cypress Creek. After it passes by Pilgrim's property, Big Cypress feeds into lakes that provide drinking water to a host of communities, including Longview and, ultimately, Shreveport, Louisiana.

Last Monday, March 25, more than 400 people, some from as far away as Shreveport, jammed into the Pittsburg youth center to give state Administrative Law Judge Bill Ehret their thoughts on Pilgrim's permit application. It was, once again, not a pretty day for Pilgrim's Pride.

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So many people packed the hall that Ehret had to make sure a second fire exit was unlocked before he could start the hearing. A junior high-school music stand--procured for use as a lectern--had to be taped together to hold the weight of microphones attached by television and radio crews from across East Texas and Louisiana.

It was a lesson in cheek-by-jowl public participation. Bo Pilgrim, flanked by a company attorney and one of his corporate officers, sat at a table in a crisp suit. Behind him were hundreds of people in jeans and work clothes, taking time off from their jobs or dairy farms to see what would happen. The crowd seemed about evenly split in sentiment, and there were tense moments as opponents of the plant passed out literature decrying Pilgrim's environmental record.

Ehret said it was one of the largest crowds he has seen in his 17 years of conducting such hearings.

Pilgrim sat quietly, the sober expression that most Texans know from his television ads seldom changing, as speaker after speaker weighed in on the prospect of a new plant.

"I think you all have read the past history of Bo and Pilgrim's Pride, and it's very alarming," said Carroll Campbell, a retired government worker and one of the first to testify at the hearing. "This is a very, very serious situation."

Like most speakers who would rise in opposition to the plant, Campbell said that Pilgrim simply cannot be taken at his word when he promises to obey state pollution laws. The company's track record does not merit granting it another permit to discharge wastewater into a stream that feeds drinking-water supplies.

Pilgrim's Pride plants, most notably in Mount Pleasant and Lufkin, have been repeatedly cited by the state for violating air- and water-pollution standards. Last year, the company agreed to pay the state $325,000 for violations, the largest fine in state history for pollution not involving hazardous waste.

"The past history of this individual, if it is not considered, then we are going to be in serious trouble," Campbell testified.

During more than four hours of hearings, city leaders from Longview and Shreveport joined environmental groups and some of Pilgrim's neighbors in beseeching Ehret not to recommend that Pilgrim's Pride receive the discharge permit. Dairy farmers and others who live near Pilgrim's existing plants trotted out photos and stories of the gagging odors and disgusting sludge that periodically escape from Pilgrim facilities.

But others, including Pilgrim's Pride employees and officials from Pittsburg and Camp County, told Ehret that complaints about the company's past pollution problems have been overblown. The company, the fifth-largest chicken processor in the nation, is too important to the East Texas economy to be denied its new plant, they argued.

"Pilgrim's Pride provides employment for many thousands of people," Pittsburg Mayor D.H. Abernathy told Ehret. "This area would not enjoy the prosperity it does without Pilgrim's Pride."

Finally, after about four hours of testimony, Bo Pilgrim himself rose to the podium, sounding almost contrite as he made a short statement defending himself and his company.

Pilgrim's Pride, its founder told Ehret, has never intentionally violated pollution standards. "I want to pledge to you that we have never in the past done anything to harm the environment," Pilgrim said, in a statement that drew looks of disbelief from some of the people who live near Pilgrim's operations.

Pilgrim promised that the new plant, if built, will use "state-of-the-art" technology from Europe. "I will attempt to comply with all the laws and regulations on the books," he told Ehret. "I will submit to you that everything we do is not wrong, and will not be wrong in the future."

However high they might run, emotions will not determine whether Pilgrim's Pride gets its permit. The company and plant opponents now must undertake the real fight, attempting to persuade Ehret--and ultimately the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission--that the permit application does or does not comply with state environmental laws.

It will take months of arguing over matters such as hydrology and microorganisms. Both sides will submit written arguments, examine each other's scientific data and depose each other's experts.

Ultimately, Ehret must decide if the 2.5 million gallons of wastewater from a new Pilgrim plant would run afoul of environmental limits. His recommendation will be forwarded to the TNRCC, which will make a final decision on the permit.

It could well be next year before a final decision is reached. If the permit is denied, Pilgrim's Pride will again be looking for another site for its plant. But Bo Pilgrim says he's optimistic. "I don't have to look any farther right now," he says.

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