The state's biggest slaughterhouse operator polluted neighbors' land for nearly a decade. Why did it take the state so long to stop him?
‘Cutting your own throat’
DESPERATION: “I didn’t want to shut them down,” says Randy Croft, who owns a 40-acre cattle ranch next to Central Beef, “because the only income I’ve got is working cows. But they were killing me.” [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
Croft says he began dealing with Chernin in the weeks following his parents’ murder, when he says Chernin showed up to make him and his brother what they considered a low-ball offer on their land. They turned Chernin down. Later, when the property began to flood, he says he tried to deal with Central Beef’s managers the way his father and his grandfather had — with an informal get-together and chat. Croft says Chernin and others kept assuring him they would back off pumping and spraying wastewater. But the “cesspool” on his property only grew, he says.
In 2005 and 2006, Croft wrote letters to Chernin and his sons, Alex and Adam, who run Central Beef with him, asking them to buy his property since the company “has shown no intentions of resolving the flooding problem.” The Chernins, he says, didn’t respond. Croft says he was reluctant to sue Central Beef because the plant is essential to every cattle operation he works for in Florida. “Everybody I worked for said, ‘Man, you’re cutting your own throat,’ ” Croft says.
But in May 2006, after his land and adjoining properties owned by two uncles had remained flooded for two years, Croft and the uncles sued Chernin and Central Beef in Sumter County Circuit Court. They allege that the company’s pollution deprived them of the use of part of their land and that the company had enriched itself unjustly by polluting. They’re seeking punitive damages. “I didn’t want to shut them down because the only income I’ve got is working cows,” says Croft. “But they were killing me. This 40 acres is all I have in the world.”
In response to the suit, attorneys for Chernin and Central Beef argued that Chernin couldn’t be held personally responsible for pollution and that the harm involved did not meet legal standards. Sumter County Circuit Judge Michelle Morley has allowed the case to go forward. It is scheduled for trial in April.
Warning: A former plant manager at Central Beef became worried enough about pollution that he began documenting his concerns in memos. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
As Croft struggled with Central Beef over the fence line, DEP had been dealing with Chernin on the regulatory front. State records show the plant’s wells had been out of compliance with water-quality standards since before the agency gave Central Beef an industrial wastewater permit in 1999. Violations continued, with warning letters that began in 2001 and culminated in the agency and Central Beef entering into a 2003 consent order — an agreement that established which areas of pollution needed to be addressed. Of particular concern: High levels of sodium and fecal contaminants in water samples taken near the plant.
But the 2003 consent order — and another warning letter in 2005 — didn’t produce progress in curtailing the pollution. Correspondence between the agency and the plant reveals a pattern that stretched for years: The agency would send a warning letter, and the company or its lawyer or engineer would assure the agency it was working on problems, such as fixing the wastewater treatment ponds and spray field. Then the company would claim a delay of some sort, the agency would give them more time, and the cycle would continue.
DEP officials say Chernin told them he couldn’t afford upgrades, such as lining Central Beef’s ponds, that would bring him into compliance.