A state hear ing started Tuesday at the Chaves County Courthouse to determine if Valley Meat Co. should be reissued its groundwater discharge permit as part of its plan to start operating as a horse meat processing plant.
“I feel ready to move forward and put this behind us,” said owner Rick De Los Santos.
De Los Santos has already contracted with a company in Dallas to process up to 120 horses per day at his plant. He said he is ready to start providing a good service, jobs and start contributing taxes to Roswell.
“I am very confident we will get the renewal,” De Los Santos said. “This is the one I wanted to get through first.”
De Los Santos said he looked most forward to getting through the New Mexico Environment Department permit hearing.
A second hearing by a U.S. federal judge in Albuquerque at the end of this month will reconsider allowing the USDA to proceed with its grant of inspection for Valley Meat.
Tuesday’s hearing is being held by the New Mexico Environment Department after it denied Valley Meat’s application for a temporary wastewater permit in August.
NMED assigned hearing officer Felicia Orth to preside over a two-day technical hearing in Roswell to gather testimony from Valley Meat, NMED and parties objecting to the permit, which include the Humane Society of the U.S., Attorney General Gary King, Front Range Equine Rescue and other animal rights activists. Members of the public are also invited to speak at the hearing.
No decision was expected this week, Orth told those assembled at the hearing. The lengthy process might take as long as four months. A decision was expected in February by the Secretary of the NMED.
The hearing began with expert technical testimony by Valley Meat from De Los Santos, a nearly 50-year practicing large-animal veterinarian, a state groundwater expert and a water discharge permit consultant to state dairy producers.
The testimony was followed by witnesses called by the HSUS and the AG’s office, both who testified mainly about drugs that might be found in race horses and other domesticated equine. Much of that testimony, given by non-veterinarians, focused on horse medication and not on wastewater or ground water processes that addressed Valley Meat’s permit.
Orth allowed the non-expert opinions to be entered into the hearing as part of the process through the day. The public was allowed to comment beginning at 5 p.m. Technical testimony will continue at 8 a.m. today and the public will again be given a chance to speak, Orth said.
Valley Meat’s permit plan was supported by County Commissioner Smiley Wooton.
“My fellow commissioners and I have expressed in our public meetings that we support the opening of Valley Meat Company,” Wooton told Orth. “We as a county government welcome, with open arms, any new business that wants to put people to work and pay taxes in our county.”
The renewal permits are commonplace in the agricultural community and present no environmental threat when done correctly, Wooton said.
“The opening of this business not only creates jobs, it also is the most humane solution to a very big problem since the last horse plant was closed long ago,” he said. “The De Los Santos family has been in the meat processing business at this location for over 20 years and have always done a good job.
“We strongly urge you to issue the permits and get this plant open for business. This family has put their heart and soul in this endeavor and they deserve to open their doors ASAP.”
Several animal rights advocates waited throughout the day to speak before the hearings officer. One woman spoke about her worry of having Roswell turn into a “kill capital of the United States.” Another woman said she worried that the ground beneath Valley Meat could, at this moment, be opening up into a gigantic crater and therefore spill forth the spoils of the meat processing plant into the community.
A 35-year veteran of the meat-processing business, De Los Santos has endured several months of public outcry and personal attacks by animal rights activists. Some public speakers at Tuesday’s hearing called him out personally for his business decision.
“People are very emotional on this issue, I can understand that,” De Los Santos said. “I would never jeopardize the groundwater for any reason. Things do happen in business. We have to deal with them and learn from them and move forward.”