A criminal case against a poultry processor accused of intentionally dumping untreated turkey remains into waterways is advancing unless the U.S. Supreme Court steps in.
A 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals order issued Friday clears the way for federal prosecutors to proceed with their case against House of Raeford Farms. The company wanted the case shelved while it asked the Supreme Court to consider its claim that the prosecution amounted to an unconstitutional second prosecution for the same crime.
Company attorneys argued to the appeals court that criminal charges were unconstitutional because House of Raeford had already been punished by paying nearly $1 million in fines for the same pollution offenses. The company's attorneys argued the Constitution's double-jeopardy clause "bars federal criminal prosecution based on violations of city-imposed rules - not separate, parallel federal standards - where the city has already fined the defendant heavily and punitively for precisely the same conduct."
Attorneys for the Rose Hill-based company and the U.S. Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment Monday. The company said in a statement Monday that both it and its employees are innocent. "House of Raeford Farms asked the Court of Appeals to determine that, under the Constitution, it should not be prosecuted based on the same events for which it already paid fines," the company said in a statement.
A federal grand jury indicted House of Raeford Farms and the plant's manager in December 2009 on 14 counts of violating the federal Clean Water Act. The indictment accuses the company and plant manager of knowingly bypassing its water treatment system at its Raeford turkey processing plant 14 times between 2005 and 2006.
The wastewater was sent directly to the city's municipal sewage treatment works, the indictment said. The bypasses and failure to report them violated an earlier agreement by House of Raeford to stop releasing untreated waste from the plant where more than 30,000 turkeys a day are processed, federal prosecutors said. The indictment said the treatment system at the House of Raeford processing plant couldn't handle the daily flow of 1 million gallons of wastewater containing turkey feathers, blood, internal organs and other body parts. House of Raeford "employees in the processing area would not release the untreated wastewater at a slower rate," the indictment said.
Between January 2005 and August 2006, wastewater operators bypassed units where grease was skimmed out of the discharge and workers would discharge the untreated wastewater directly to the sewer and the Raeford sewer plant. Most industries are required to treat their wastewater before it leaves a production site to remove pollutants that municipal sewage plants may not be equipped to cleanse.
The company said it completed a $1.4 million pretreatment facility in September 2006, which solved the plant's problems. If convicted, the company could face a maximum fine of $500,000 per count. Plant manager Gregory Steenblock could face a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine per count. The company employs more than 6,500 workers processing chickens and turkeys in eight plants in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana. Privately owned House of Raeford has had frequent battles with regulators.
Regulators in January fined the company $36,000 after allegedly finding 12 serious workplace safety violations at the Raeford turkey plant, according to federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration records. That's after inspectors last fall fined the company $18,800 for four serious violations at the same plant about 90 miles southwest of Raleigh.
Inspectors fined the company $178,000 in 2008 after allegedly finding more than two dozen serious workplace safety violations at a plant in Teachey. A chlorine gas leak at the company's plant in Rose Hill in 2003 killed one employee and sent two others to the hospital. In 2005, the U.S. Agriculture Department ordered the Raeford turkey plant closed to force the company to fix uncorrected problems that could lead to food poisoning. The plant had been cited repeatedly for violations dating back months that had not been satisfactorily resolved, including a leaky roof and employee hygiene, an agency spokesman said.
A subsidiary, Columbia Farms Inc., was charged with knowingly hiring illegal immigrants after a raid at its Greenville, S.C., plant rounded up hundreds of suspect workers in 2008. Columbia Farms agreed the following year to pay a $1.5 million fine and change its hiring practices in a deal that gives it two years to get in line with federal hiring practices. Prosecutors could pursue their case again if the company doesn't comply.