Plans to begin slaughtering horses at meat processing plants in New Mexico and Iowa have been stymied by a federal judge in Albuquerque who granted a temporary injunction late Friday, at least until a hearing can be continued today, the same day the two plants were set to open.
Federal District Judge Christina Armijo issued a temporary restraining order and scheduled today’s hearing in a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Humane Society of the United States and other groups who charged the United States Department of Agriculture failed to perform appropriate environmental studies before issuing federal permits that cleared the way for Valley Meat Company of Roswell, New Mexico, and Responsible Transportation of Sigourney, Iowa, to open horse slaughterhouses, the first of their kind in the U.S. in over seven years.
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According to the lawsuit, waste water generated from slaughterhouse facilities represents an environmental hazard because of the large number of drugs routinely administered to horses. Attorney Bruce Wagman, representing the plaintiffs, told the court horses are known to receive over 100 types of drugs and slaughter houses should be forced to undergo review according to terms of the National Environmental Policy Act.
"The government is about to embark on a brand new multi-state program (and) we just don't know the dangers," he told the court.
But attorneys representing USDA and the two processing facilities argued there was no evidence to support allegations that drugs administered to horses pose any environmental hazard and charged that the plaintiffs petitioned the court based upon moral opposition to horse slaughter issue and are trying to delay plant openings until Congress can take action.
Horse slaughter in the U.S. was halted in 2007 when Congress failed to fund USDA inspections. Prior to closure, a number of U.S. processing plants exported horse meat to countries where the practice of human consumption is both legal and common.
Owners of both the New Mexico and Iowa plants have said they plan to export horse meat and also to sell horse meat to zoos across the United States. Both are legal according to USDA officials. USDA granted a permit to Valley Meat Company in late June and followed by issuing another permit to the Iowa plant a few days later.
In New Mexico, State Attorney General Gary King and the New Mexico Environment Department declined a request to renew the plant's wastewater discharge permit last week. The move immediately drew a quick response from Roswell plant's attorney, Blair Dunn, who said the move will necessarily require the plant operator to transport waste to a remote facility, but will not stop the plant from opening.
President Barrack Obama cleared the way for USDA inspections of horse slaughter facilities earlier this year but has since expressed his opposition to the practice. The White House is currently active in asking Congress to outlaw commercial slaughtering of horses.
Lawyers for the defendants (USDA and the two processing plants) argued that both companies have invested sizeable capital to equip and prepare the plants to open as horse processing facilities. Armijo told plaintiffs one of the purposes of Monday's scheduled hearing was to determine how much money the plaintiffs would need to put up in advance to compensate the plant owners if the defendant's lost the lawsuit.
Dunn, representing Valley Meat Company, said after Friday's hearing he will ask the court for $10 million. Pat Rogers, representing Iowa's Responsible Transportation, reported the three young clients who started the company borrowed $1.5 million and also had another $1 million-plus committed by investors.
The issue of slaughtering horses has sparked an emotional debate nationwide about how to deal with the large number of abandoned or unwanted horses all across the country. It has divided animal rights groups, ranchers, Indian tribes and horse owners.
Those supporting the licensing and operation of horse slaughter facilities argue it is the only humane method of dealing with a growing problem. They note that since the ban on horse slaughter nearly seven years ago, the number of horses transported long distances under undesirable conditions to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada, often to face worse and inhumane conditions in slaughterhouses that are not regulated, have increased.
Both the Navajo Nation and representatives of the Yakama Indian Nation have testified that large numbers of wild horses have caused great damage on tribal lands. Attorneys for the Navajo said they estimate 75,000 wild horses running free on tribal property in Arizona have caused tremendous economic problems for the tribe. They say a large percentage of these horses are suffering from starvation and disease.