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Central Beef Had 'Willful Disregard'

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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.

Marshall Chernin
Under Arrest: DEP officials arrested Central Beef owner Marshall Chernin in 2006 and charged him with criminal pollution. [Photo: Sumter County Sheriff's Office]
When he came to Florida, Chernin, now 69, bought the Central Beef slaughterhouse in rural Sumter County, in a tiny town called Center Hill. Florida ranks in the top 15 in the country in producing beef cattle, but most are shipped out of the state to be fattened and slaughtered.

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]

‘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]
A full-time cowboy who’s spent his career running cattle from Lake Okeechobee to Alabama, Randy Croft owns 40 acres of what’s left of the land his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents farmed. (In the 1940s, his family sold part of their land to Central Beef’s original owners to build the plant.) Croft inherited his acreage, which is adjacent to the plant’s property, in a heartbreaking way. In 2000, his 71-year-old father, a retired Church of God preacher named Lindsey Croft, and his 67-year-old mother, Lucille Croft, were stabbed to death by a teen-ager they knew from the cattle market. They let the boy into their farmhouse one night to use the phone.

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.

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 April 2006, he wrote in a memo to Chernin: “As you know I have pointed out to you the fact that the February test results reveal a continued ‘out of compliance’ with most if not all test categories that our operating license is based.”

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.”

‘Private person’

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.