Whitewater Processing Co. slaughters and processes 6,000 to 8,000 turkeys on a normal day, producing about 2.5 to 3 million pounds of turkey in an average month. The Kopp family has run the business since the 1930s, and with 110 employees, wanted to stay put.
But in the 1990s, environmental concerns about the 145,000 gallons of wastewater it produces each day nearly sunk the business.
Today, with a first-of-its-kind treatment system designed by an Ohio State University researcher, the rough waters have calmed.
And though the costs have been considerable -- about $1 million to build the wastewater treatment system plus an estimated $1.8 million to operate and maintain it over the next 20 years -- the Kopp family figures the business will save at least $10 million over the next-best alternative.
"It's working very well, we're very excited about it," says Ryan Kopp, project manager.
In the late 1990s, Whitewater began working with Karen Mancl, an environmental scientist and Ohio State University Extension water quality specialist, after the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency grew concerned about the company's open-lagoon wastewater treatment system, especially with the Whitewater River so close to the facility.
"It's a beautiful river, and we definitely wanted to make sure it's protected," says Mancl.
The timing was fortuitous: Mancl had just finished a study on using a sand bioreactor system to treat wastewater from a cheese-making plant. Though that company didn't follow through with the system, Mancl's studies showed bioreactors provide an effective way to treat high-fat, high-organic-matter wastewater at a relatively low cost.
Whitewater's options were limited. The EPA first suggested it hook up to Harrison's municipal wastewater treatment plant. But the company would still need to pretreat its water to remove pollutants that the municipal system wasn't designed to handle, and it would still have to pay a premium to the facility.
The total cost for the construction of the pretreatment facility, hook-up and use of the Harrison treatment plant over 20 years was estimated at $12.5 million.
"And it likely would have been even more," Kopp says. "They had given us some estimates for future increases in treatment costs when we first looked at that option, and so far the actual increases have been more than they projected."
In 2001, Whitewater began funding research in Mancl's lab to determine if bioreactors would work for the type of wastewater its facility generated. That funding continued year after year as Mancl, graduate students and post-doctoral researchers ran test after test in the lab.
"With all of Karen's work, we knew the system would work great," Kopp says. "It was just a matter of scaling up to what we needed for commercial use."
A bioreactor system works like this: First, the wastewater is screened to remove as much of the suspended solids as possible before it is flowed through beds of sand and gravel. Microbes quickly populate the surface of the sand grains and gravel pieces, and they feast on the organic matter, breaking it down and removing it from the water. Treated water runs clear.
In fact, before treatment, the effluent at Whitewater is measured at over 800 BOD (biological oxygen demand), the standard that regulators use to measure water pollution. Normal sewage has a BOD of about 200.
When Whitewater's wastewater is tested after treatment, its BOD is less than 5, and it can be released directly into the Whitewater River, with the Ohio EPA's blessing.
"The EPA has been very helpful through this whole process," Kopp says. "Very patient."
Whitewater's bioreactor system covers 4 acres of land adjacent to the facility.