The state's biggest slaughterhouse operator polluted neighbors' land for nearly a decade. Why did it take the state so long to stop him?
Wastewater: Environmental regulators took photos showing brown water shooting into Central Beef’s spray field (click image for detail) [Photo: Department of Environmental Protection]
Marshall Chernin has spent most of his career in the slaughterhouse business, earning a reputation as a skilled buyer and seller of beef.
When he left the Midwest for Florida in the late 1990s, he also left conflicts with previous employers like the Long Prairie Packing Co. of Minnesota. Between 1978 and 1982, when he believed Long Prairie reneged on promises to pay him bonuses, he transferred nearly $1 million from the company’s accounts to out-of-state bank accounts he controlled, according to court records. The company fired him and tried to get the money back. Chernin ended up pleading guilty to seven counts of wire fraud, income tax evasion, conspiracy to defraud and providing false statements to the government and served about three years in prison. But in 1990 a jury found that he was entitled to the bonuses he’d paid himself and awarded him both the bonuses and $6.5 million in damages for breach of contract, court records reflect.
In 1996, another employer, GFI Primary Foods of Minnesota, claimed in a lawsuit that Chernin had tried, as a 10% shareholder, to drive down the company’s value so he could buy it. Chernin and the company later settled the litigation.
Under Arrest: DEP officials arrested Central Beef owner Marshall Chernin in 2006 and charged him with criminal pollution. [Photo: Sumter County Sheriff's Office]
Doubling production to about 500 cows a day, Chernin turned Central Beef into the largest commercial beef slaughterhouse in the state. He estimates that the company, which employs more than 120, processes some 75% of the cattle slaughtered in Florida.
Neighbors had complained of foul odors and contaminated wastewater coming from Central Beef since it opened in the 1950s, and state environmental regulators had cited the plant for pollution since well before Chernin’s time. But when Chernin doubled Central Beef’s daily kills, the problems took on a new dimension.
State Department of Environmental Protection records show the plant had an industrial wastewater permit to dispose of 40,000 gallons of wastewater a day. But ever since Chernin expanded production, the plant has been generating some 130,000 gallons a day, according to DEP records, legal documents and transcripts of depositions with Central Beef employees.
Until last year, the company didn’t begin building a new wastewater treatment facility. Nor did it haul away the dirty water. Instead, say neighbors and the DEP, the plant simply dumped the excess waste on its own property and on neighbors’.
At times, neighbors say, the water pooled several feet deep and was tinged with blood and solids. Insects teemed. Hundreds of buzzards congregated. Photos shot by environmental regulators show brown water shooting into Central Beef’s spray field, overflowing ponds and heaps of “stomach paunch” from slaughtered animals piled up on site.
So how — in what many businesspeople consider an era of heavy environmental regulation — did Florida’s largest cattle slaughterhouse get away with that level of pollution for nearly a decade?
Regulators' photos of overflowing ponds and heaps of ‘stomach paunch’ from slaughtered animals piled up on site. Plant managers tried to blame flooding on hurricanes, but DEP officials noted the photos were taken during the dry season. [Photo: Department of Environmental Protection]