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Behind the Headlines Fight over Kosher Slaughterhouse in Iowa Takes Its Saltiest Turn Yet

May 10, 2004
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For more than a decade, tension has been a way of life in Postville, Iowa, where a group of Chasidic Jews are the small town’s power brokers, owning the top industry and employer, Agriprocessors Inc., the world’s largest glatt-kosher slaughterhouse.In the saltiest chapter yet, a group of farmers is fighting the company’s new, $10.7 million mechanical wastewater treatment plant, which when complete will discharge more than 14.5 tons of salt used by the slaughterhouse into local streams every day.

Construction of the plant began last month with $7.5 million in federal grants and loans. But on April 28, Northeast Iowa Citizens for Clean Water filed an appeal with the Iowa Supreme Court to stop construction of the plant until a trial — slated for February 2005 — decides the legality of the proposed level of salt discharge. The litigation will focus on an August 2003 permit issued by Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, authorizing the salt discharge. The state’s supreme court will review the appeal for a stay later this month.

The citizens group and environmentalists in Iowa claim the proposed discharge — more than twice the amount the slaughterhouse currently releases into the city’s lagoon system — would violate state and federal water quality standards.

They also say it would damage the ecosystem of the scenic Yellow River, a rare and valuable cold-water trout stream that connects to aquifers tapped by the farmers’ drinking wells, which they say would be contaminated.

“I’m definitely in favor of the new plant,” said Jerry Anderson, an environmental lawyer and law professor at Drake University in Des Moines who is representing the citizens group, which has 15 core members. “But the plant will not take one molecule of salt out of the water. It’s just going to dilute it. This doesn’t comply with the law.”

Anderson’s clients are asking Agriprocessors to add technology to the new plant that would remove salt from outgoing wastewater.

On two separate occasions this year, the citizens group failed at the district court level to get a stay on the plant’s construction.

Sholom Rubashkin, vice president of Agriprocessors, said his company is being targeted by farmers who are purposely ignoring other sources of pollution in the area.

“If people are so concerned about the environment, let’s talk about all the other pollutants, like those from the hog farms. Why are they not concerned about that?” he said. “Which contaminant are they attacking? Salt — which belongs to the Jewish people.”

Salt is used to leach blood from the meat, an essential part of making meat kosher.

Rubashkin added that Agriprocessors, which will pay back $4.5 million in federal loans for the plant, is making a “tremendous improvement” to the environment because the plant will reduce pollutants such as ammonia, which kills fish.

“This is all done with the blessing of the DNR,” Rubashkin said. “This is the most researched permit ever given in the state of Iowa.”

The Lubavitch Chasidim came to Iowa from Brooklyn in the late 1980s to take over a defunct meat processing plant. Chasidic Jews now make up about 10 percent of Postville’s 2,200 residents, and the slaughterhouse employs more than 600 people.

Since they arrived, the Chasidim often have been at odds with local farmers — and much of the rest of Postville, says Stephen Bloom, author of “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America.”

When they opened the slaughterhouse, “there were farmers who pleaded with the Lubavitchers not to dump the tonnage of salt,” said Bloom, a journalism professor at the University of Iowa. “Their response was consistent: ‘This is how we go about our religion. If you disagree with us, you’re an anti-Semite.’ There seemed to be little concern by the Lubavitchers about the environment.”

But Aaron Goldsmith — the only Chasidic Jew to serve on Postville’s City Council, until his term ended in January – – said there was “no science whatsoever to support that there will be any negative effect” on the environment from the plant’s discharge.

During his three-year term, Goldsmith served on a 10-person city committee that unanimously approved the Department of Natural Resources permit after hearing from scientific experts who supported the plan, and he played a key role in negotiating a settlement between the city, the Department of Natural Resources and Agriprocessors over the specifics of the plant’s operations.

Goldsmith said the citizens group was “undermining the spirit of cooperation” that made the plant possible and was jeopardizing funds for the project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“They’re breaking the backs of the town. For those who want to see the Jews leave, this is a great opportunity,” he said. “And by holding the project up they’re polluting the Yellow River worse.”

As for the argument that Agriprocessors should improve technology at the plant to remove salt, Goldsmith said there was “no known cost-effective removal of chloride.”

In the 1990s, the City of Postville annexed the land on which the slaughterhouse is located. There have since been many lawsuits involving the slaughterhouse that are pending, settled or already adjudicated.

In 2001, for example, Postville filed a lawsuit to recover $2 million that it said Agriprocessors owed in unpaid wastewater-related fines, penalties and user fees dating to 1990. That and other, similar cases were settled out of court in mid-2002.

Agriprocessors plans to expand production from 760,000 pounds to 1.1 million pounds of meat per day once the wastewater plant is up and running in mid-2005.

The City of Postville, which is doing the actual construction of the wastewater plant on land owned by Agriprocessors, supports the project.

“Many, many hours were spent by Department of Natural Resources engineers looking into the question of whether this permit was a good idea and whether it was protective of the environment,” said Steven Pace, an attorney for the city. “The conclusion was that it was.”

But Anderson said the Department of Natural Resources never conducted a formal environmental study of possible effects on the Yellow River ecosystem, even after 1,300 Postville residents signed a petition in March asking the Department of Natural Resources for such a review.

Lawyers for the Department of Natural Resources said they could not comment on the pending litigation.

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