Fire crews responded to a suspicious fire Saturday that apparently was started near a generator at Valley Meat Co.’s plant on Cedarvale Road near Roswell. (Jill McLaughlin Photo)
Fire officials responded to a suspicious fire Saturday that burned part of the exterior of Valley Meat Co.’s building and damaged a refrigeration unit.
But the possible arson still won’t stop the country’s first federally permitted horse meat processing plant since 2007 from opening Monday if a court hearing finds in its favor this week.
“That does not appear to alter the company’s plans to open,” said A. Blair Dunn, attorney for Valley Meat Co.
Chaves County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Britt Snyder said fire officials were investigating the incident.
“The fire was very suspicious,” Snyder said. “It certainly appears that it was deliberately set.”
East Grand Plains Volunteer Fire Department was dispatched to the scene.
The plant remains idle, as owner Rick De Los Santos waits on the outcome of a hearing at 10 a.m. Friday in Albuquerque.
Chief Judge Christina Armijo, of the U.S. District Court of New Mexico, is expected to rule whether to place a six- to 12-month temporary restraining order on horse meat slaughter inspections in the U.S.
National and state animal protection groups and individuals filed a suit against the USDA to halt operations at the Roswell plant and a facility in Iowa, claiming the federal government failed to follow proper environmental reviews before issuing grants of inspections to the facilities.
Meanwhile, New Mexico Environment Department’s denial of Valley Meat’s temporary discharge permit earlier this month will not hinder the plant from opening Monday. De Los Santos has made arrangements to truck wastewater off the property until the permitting process is resolved, Dunn said.
The department’s denial has sparked some question as to why the company was treated differently.
Kevin Powers of NMED’s Office of General Counsel said the company’s permit last expired in 2009. The company was notified following a lapsed review period to submit a renewal application, which Valley Meat did.
“That’s where exchanges of information started,” Powers said. “They came back and it seemed they provided relevant information.”
As the company waited 15 months for USDA to process its horse meat inspection permit, the state permitting process was also delayed by NMED, according to Dunn. He has requested the department issue a 120-day temporary discharge permit to resolve “the issue due to the time delay interposed by your agency,” according to a letter sent to the NMED’s Secretary.
Jerry Schoeppner, chief of Grown Water Quality Bureau at NMED wrote in a letter that the bureau learned about Valley Meat’s plans to open as a horse meat processing plant from news media late this spring.The bureau then sent a letter requesting additional information to clarify operations in order to complete processing of the renewal.
The company submitted a renewal application that was deemed “complete” but NMED is not able to demonstrate “good cause to allow for temporary permission to discharge.”
“That’s where we’re at right now,” Powers said.
NMED is planning an official public hearing in Roswell within the next 30-90 days after getting more than 450 responses—mostly from out-of-state and overseas—during a public comment period.
Less than a dozen comments were submitted by New Mexico residents, Even fewer came from the Roswell area, Powers said.
After gathering responses, staff presented Valley Meat’s permit information to NMED’s Secretary-Designate Ryan Flynn, appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez in mid-April.
Martinez has openly opposed Valley Meat’s plans and petitioned the USDA to ask the agency not to allow the plant to open in New Mexico.
“What we do is present all the information to Secretary Ryan Flynn to go over,” Powers said. “It’s our duty to make sure the facility does not affect the ground water.”
Animal agriculture permitting such as dairy permitting, often does require public comments and routinely temporary permits are issues. But these agriculture practices “are different to this situation,” Powers said.
“There are no clear answers,” he said. “It is not clearly defined. As long as there is substantial public interest (a public meeting is required).”
Valley Meat has operated with a permit at the site for more than 20 years, Dunn said.
“There is no difference with what Valley was doing there before and what it is doing going forward,” Dunn said. “This is ‘special treatment,’ and not in a positive sense for Valley Meat.”