Pennsylvania meatpacking plant remains closed after DEP order

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nicholas meat facility
Nicholas Meat, a beef packing plant in Clinton County, Pennsylvania, shut down for more than a week after the Pennsylvania DEP ordered the facility to stop applying its food processing waste to snow-covered fields. (submitted photo)

Update at 5 p.m. 3/3/2021: Nicholas Meat partially opened March 2 and was fully open March 3 after the snow melted enough to apply FPRs to nearby farmland.

“We continue to have discussions with the DEP and remain hopeful that we can find a workable solution,” said Brian Miller, director of sustainability at Nicholas Meat, in a statement. “We know that our situation is very weather-dependent right now and, while we’re able to reopen briefly, we’re unsure of what the future will bring.”

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A meatpacking plant in central Pennsylvania shut down after the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ordered it to stop spreading waste from its facility onto snow-covered ground.

Nicholas Meat, in Loganton, Pennsylvania, said the DEP compliance order forced them to close temporarily, as they had no other alternative to store or dispose of its food processing residuals, commonly called FPR.

Brian Miller, director of sustainability for Nicholas Meat, said the DEP decision was a surprise and arbitrary reversal after the company has been allowed to land apply FPR year round for more than a decade.

“We have 3.5 million gallons of storage,” Miller said, during a press conference Feb. 24. “It’s unreasonable to expect any company to have unlimited storage. That’s the point of having the ability to apply FPRs on land.”

The DEP said, in a statement, it did not force Nicholas Meat to close and that the company had “multiple legal options available to manage its food processing residual.”

“The choice to shut down was solely theirs,” the DEP said.

Complaints

Nicholas Meat, in Clinton County, shut down temporarily Feb. 23 after receiving a compliance order from the DEP on Feb. 9. The Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board denied the company’s petition to be relieved of the order’s obligations on Feb. 19.

The compliance order came after “numerous community complaints,” the DEP said. The department took action because of an increased risk for runoff due to snow melt and uncertain field conditions. The DEP said applying FPR to snow-covered ground has never been permissible under the state’s Food Processing Residual Management Manual.

“Nicholas Meat has suggested that previous application has occurred that the department may have been aware of; however, field conditions and weather conditions may have varied at those times,” the department said, in a statement. “Regardless, application of FPR to snow-covered ground is not and has not been an allowable activity.”

FPR is incidental organic material generated by processing agricultural commodities for human or animal consumption. The term is broad and includes a number of byproducts, like wastewater from cleaning slaughter areas and rinsing carcasses, blood, bones, hide, hair, feathers, fruit and vegetable peels, seeds, shells, pits or cheese whey.

Nicholas Meat uses shallow disc injection to apply its FPR to surrounding farmland. This method, while not specifically mentioned in the state’s FPR Management Manual published in 1994, is an environmentally responsible way to use FPR, said Robin Brandt, one of the authors of the manual. 

manure spreader nicholas meat
Nicholas Meat, a meatpacking plant in Loganton, Pennsylvania, uses the shallow disc injection technology pictured to land apply its food waste year round. The state DEP recently ordered it to stop this practice on snow-covered ground. (submitted photo)

Brandt defended Nicholas Meat during the company’s Feb. 24 press call. Shallow disc injection technology did not exist when the manual was written, he said.

“This application, on snow-covered fields, can be done in an environmentally sound manner,” he said.

The alternative to getting rid of the FPR, once the company’s storage is full, is to haul 150,000 gallons a day of the residual to a wastewater treatment plant about 50 miles away, Brandt said.

Supply chain impacts

Nicholas Meat has about 350 employees and 150 contractors. The facility processes about 600 head of beef cattle daily, under certified organic, grassfed certified organic, natural grassfed, natural and Angus programs.

The company sources beef from local farmers in Pennsylvania and across the eastern U.S.

John Painter, an organic beef farmer, in Westfield, Pennsylvania, said the Loganton meat plant is the only one within hours of his farm that will pay a premium for organically raised beef.

“[Other facilities] will take organic, but you won’t get a premium price,” he said, during the press call.

Solutions

The company has a plan to build a wastewater treatment facility to handle its FPR on site. It received approval Feb. 11 from the DEP to construct a sustainable resources facility that will include anaerobic digesters and other water treatment systems. The goal is to reclaim up to 90% of water used and convert FPR into renewable energy, the company said, in a statement.

The DEP said it views the new waste digester facility as a long-term sustainable solution for the company. But for now, Nicholas Meat created its own problems by expanding its operations beyond its waste storage capacity.

“That growth, coupled with an unusually long standing snowpack and no backup plan, is the genesis of this issue” the DEP said, in a statement.

The plant will remain closed until the snow melts and FPR can be spread again. Employees are receiving paid time off for now.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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