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Iowa Watchdog

Hold your horses: Federal judge stops NM horse slaughter plant

8/5/2013

ALBUQUERQUE  – The Roswell horse slaughter facility is on hold.

U.S. District Court Judge M. Christina Armijo granted a temporary restraining order against the Valley Meat Co., which received approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to become the first processing facility for horse meat in the U.S. in seven years.

PUT ON HOLD: A federal judge granted a temporary restraining order to prevent a horse meat processing plant from opening Monday.

PUT ON HOLD: A federal judge granted a temporary restraining order to prevent a horse meat processing plant from opening Monday.

“The burden is high, but plaintiffs have demonstrated to this court that potential harm to the environment outweigh defendant’s concerns,” Armijo said from the bench, effectively shutting  the Roswell facility and another proposed horse slaughterhouse in Sigourney, Iowa, from opening as early as this Monday.

A bond hearing will be set Monday, and the two sides will meet again within 30 days before Armijo to hear arguments about a permanent injunction,

“This is out of left field, and we never saw this coming,” said Valley Meat Co. attorney Blair Dunn.

Given the high threshold for plaintiffs to receive a restraining order, even the lead attorney for opponents admitted he was caught off guard.

“I was surprised,” attorney Bruce Wagman said outside court. “I’m just one of those people who hope for the best and expect the worst, and take whatever comes.”

“Needless to say, this further delay is a problem,” Dunn said, telling New Mexico Watchdog he doesn’t anticipate the Valley Meat facility opening for “six months, at least.”

“There’s more work ahead but it’s a good day for horses,” said Laura Bonar of Animal Protection New Mexico.

The Humane Society of the United States and other opponents of the Valley Meat Co. facility introduced the lawsuit, arguing the plant was a risk to public health and to the environment.

Wagman argued that horsemeat could be contaminated with drugs that could be dangerous for humans to eat. The facility could end up polluting groundwater, he said.

“It’s an environmental looming nightmare,” Wagman told the court.

But attorneys for the Roswell plant — as well as lawyers for prospective facility slated to open in Iowa and the Yakama Nation in the Pacific Northwest — argued that fears are based merely on speculation.

“It’s a lawful business, it’s a safe business,” said attorney Pat Rogers, speaking on behalf of the owners of the proposed Iowa facility.

“This is not a hypothetical problem for my client,” said Yakama Nation attorney John Boyd. “Their land is being destroyed” by an estimated 12,000 wild horses the tribe says are roaming wild.

“(Friday’s plaintiffs) are seeking a judicial remedy when they really need to seek a legislative remedy,” argued Department of Justice lawyer Andrew Smith, adding, “Congress has mandated this activity.”

In 2006 the U.S. prohibted horse slaughter, and the last plant closed in 2007. But in 2011, Congress quietly removed the rider enforcing the ban from an omnibus spending act.  Then, on June 28, the USDA approved permits for the Roswell facility.

The plant has become a hot-button issue extending beyond New Mexico’s borders, and Friday’s ruling was closely watched across the country. In addition to the New Mexico and Iowa facilities, a horse slaughter plant is proposed in Missouri.

The debate has divided politicians of both parties in New Mexico, conservation activists and Native American tribes.

The Navajo Nation — which estimates that anywhere between 20,000 to 75,000 feral horses roam the reservation’s 27,425 square miles — came out in support of the Roswell facility while the Mescalero Apaches and some tribes outside New Mexico say they want the slaughterhouse blocked.

Now that Armijo has ruled, the next step is a bond hearing before a magistrate judge on Monday in Albuquerque. Dunn says he will ask for at least $10 million dollars for Valley Meat and the proposed facility in Missouri.

Contact Sheena Dooley at dooley@iowawatchdog.org. Sheena Dooley is the Iowa bureau chief for Watchdog.org, where this story first appeared.

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