The state's biggest slaughterhouse operator polluted neighbors' land for nearly a decade. Why did it take the state so long to stop him?
In August 2006, five years after the agency’s first warning letters, DEP agents arrested Chernin and charged him with criminal pollution: Disposing of hazardous waste, commercial littering and violation of Florida Administrative Code rules. Prosecutors later dropped the hazardous waste charge.
Non-Compliance: Marshall Chernin told Department of Environmental regulators that he couldn’t afford upgrades, such as lining the company’s ponds, that would bring him into compliance. [Photo: Department of Environmental Protection]
In their case summary, DEP law-enforcement agents described an “overwhelmed and ineffective” wastewater plant that becomes clogged with solids, including fecal matter, during the slaughtering process. “Marshall Chernin has been aware of the problems with his facility for sometime and has not only failed to remedy the problem but has also shown a willful disregard to the environment by allowing the release of untreated contaminants from his facility to land and surrounding water bodies,” they wrote.
Records from the criminal case also show that in 2005, Chernin’s former plant manager, Dick Greene, had become worried enough about pollution that he began documenting his concerns in memos. In October 2005, he wrote a memo to Chernin and his sons warning that sodium levels at the plant spray field pumping station were as high as 683 milligrams per liter. (The DEP limit is 160 milligrams per liter.) “At these levels,” he wrote, “DEP will continue to ‘ask some very serious questions.’ ”
OVERWORKED: DEP agents described an ‘overwhelmed and ineffective’ wastewater plant that becomes clogged with solids, including fecal matter, during the slaughtering process. [Photo: Ray Stanyard]
In July 2007, Chernin pleaded no contest to the charges against him. The court withheld adjudication, sentenced Chernin to a year’s probation and charged him $1,040 for court costs and $3,324 for DEP’s investigative costs.
Croft says the pool of waste on his land began to shrink after he filed his civil suit and Chernin was arrested. Only after Croft’s suit did DEP file its own civil suit against Central Beef requesting an injunction to force the plant to stop polluting. The company’s “repeated and continuing violation of its permit and department rules poses a threat to Florida’s ground waters and to the health, safety and welfare of the residents living in the neighborhood adjacent to the facility,” the suit says. In March 2007, Sumter County Circuit Judge William H. Hallman III granted a temporary injunction ordering Central Beef to clean up piles of solids, curtail the effluent flowing out of the plant, stop discharging the brine used to cure animal hides and other provisions.
Why did it take DEP so long to move forcefully against the company? DEP spokeswoman Sarah Williams says agency officials would not talk about the case because of their suit against the company. In a written statement, she says the agency “has been consistent in vigorously pursuing enforcement of environmental standards against Central Beef.”
Croft’s lawyer, Brian W. Warwick, a consumer-rights attorney in The Villages, says the agency has been anything but vigorous. “To have a violation start in 1999 and have it still under investigation in 2008 is absolutely bananas to me,” he says. “No one wants to see the last slaughterhouse in Florida shut down, including my clients,” says Warwick, “but the DEP should not have let it run over capacity for so long.”
Meanwhile, after the lawsuit and Chernin’s arrest, the plant began hiring Lakeland-based Aqua Clean to haul off wastewater in trucks, at a cost of 13 cents a gallon, according to the deposition of Central Beef facilities manager James Bever.
Croft does a quick calculation based on the difference between the 40,000 gallons of wastewater a day that the plant had permits for and the 130,000 gallons a day it was generating. At 13 cents a gallon, he reckons Chernin was saving more than $3 million a year for his company by dumping the excess wastewater. “It burns my butt that they made all that money off my land,” says Croft. “It’s ill-gotten gains.”
An hour south of the Central Beef plant, in north Tampa, Chernin and his wife, Ida Raye, live in a home in the Cory Lakes neighborhood worth $959,478, according to Hillsborough County property records. Their two sons live nearby. The Chernins are active in Tampa Bay philanthropic circles. They are also big political contributors; Chernin donated $2,300 to Rudolph Giuliani’s presidential campaign in March.
Chernin wouldn’t comment other than to say Central Beef is building a new wastewater-treatment plant that soon will recycle 100% of the company’s wastewater. He declined to allow a tour of the plant. “I try to be a private person,” he says. “I don’t want to add to the fire. You’d be surprised by what you would see here,” he adds. “This is one of the best facilities in the Southeast.”
So it says in an employment ad Central Beef is running on national career websites. The company is seeking an industrial wastewater plant operator. “One of the most reputable meat packing plants in Florida,” the ad says.