By JERI CLAUSING
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- Arsonists set fire to the southeastern New Mexico company that planned to resume domestic horse slaughter next week, the company's owner said Tuesday.
"They tried to burn the place down," Valley Meat Co. owner Rick De Los Santo said Tuesday in reference to opponents who have been making threats against the company over the past year as it has fought the federal government for permission to convert its cattle operations into a horse slaughterhouse.
Chaves County Sheriff Rob Coon said fire officials were investigating but no official cause had yet been determined for the blaze. He said he remains concerned, however, that there will be trouble at the plant if it begins slaughtering horses.
Attempts by companies like Valley Meat Co. to resume domestic horse slaughter have ignited a divisive and emotional national debate that has resulted in a string of threats against De Los Santos, his family and his business.
"We have had some say, 'I hope your building burns down,'" De Los Santos said. "That's not good at all. What are they going to do next? Take a pot shot at us when we are walking in?"
On Saturday, De Los Santos said someone apparently jumped the fence, then poured accelerant over the compressors to his refrigeration unit. A passer-by alerted authorities.
"The fire inspector was out there," De Los Santos said. "He took samples of the dirt and stuff just to make sure. But he said this was something that was not done by electricity or lightning. He said something was poured on it to light it."
De Los Santos says the company will be unable to open as planned Monday without a working refrigeration unit.
The company also was heading to federal court Friday to fight attempts by The Humane Society of the United States and other groups to block the opening of Valley Meat and another recently approved horse slaughterhouse in Iowa.
The groups contend that the Department of Agriculture failed to conduct the proper environmental reviews before issuing the companies permits to slaughter horses.
The USDA also opposes horse slaughter. But after being sued by Valley Meat Co. for failing to act on its application, the agency said it was obligated to issue the permits since Congress lifted a ban on domestic horse slaughter in 2011.
Meat from the slaughterhouses would be shipped to some countries for human consumption and for use as zoo and other animal food.