TCS Daily

Illinois Firm Finds It Can 'Save the Bay' and Factories, Farmers and Towns, Too

By J. Bishop Grewell - April 19, 2001 12:00 AM

In 1987, the governors of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania joined the Mayor of Washington, D.C., and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to sign the Chesapeake Bay Agreement with the goal of reducing nutrient runoff in the Chesapeake watershed's main channel. Amendments added to the agreement in 1992 refocused the multi-state compact, making cleanup of the Chesapeake's upstream tributaries the main goal. In June 2000, a new Chesapeake agreement was reached, again in the hopes of reducing nutrient runoff.

While the state governments have not yet reached their goals, one Midwest company stepped forward last August to show them how it's done.

Sheaffer International (, headquartered in Naperville, Illinois, opened a unique treatment plant alongside the North Fork of the Shenandoah River near the towns of Broadway and Timberville, Virginia. Taking in the municipal sewage of the two small communities and waste from two major food processors, Sheaffer International's reclamation and reuse system creates no discharge into the watershed, eliminates the odor of traditional wastewater treatment, and does it all for much less than conventional systems.

Designed by Dr. John "Jack" Sheaffer, the company's flagship product is a modular system that recycles sewage for agricultural use or landscaping. Wastewater is piped from the municipalities and food processors to the Sheaffer system where it enters a grinder pump.

This pump grinds up solids into fine particles and injects the waste into the base of a deep pond called a treatment cell. Anaerobic digestion breaks the organic material down into soluble gases and water. Inorganic material settles to the bottom where it can be stored for up to 30 years thanks to a slow accumulation rate. On top of this anaerobic zone, a compressor-blower maintains an aerobic zone by injecting air into the cells. The aerobic zone kills pathogens and eliminates odors. After 18 days, the whole process repeats for 12 days in a second treatment cell. Finally, the 1.9 million gallons of daily wastewater moves to a storage reservoir designed to contain it for 120 days.

Once treated, the Sheaffer system stores the wastewater until nearby farms are ready for irrigation. For the North Fork of the Shenandoah, Sheaffer International secured 25-year easements from seven local farmers to spray irrigate roughly 530 acres of corn, soybeans, and hay. The farmers can expect corn and soybean yields to bump up 15 percent to 20 percent thanks to the nutrient-rich water.

In order to secure the easements, Sheaffer International chose not to charge the farmers. One farmer noted, however, that he had planned to put in irrigation anyway so the free irrigation provided by Sheaffer was quite the boon.

By recycling the waste to growing crops, the Sheaffer system avoids discharging it into local tributaries. This cuts the nutrients found in the Shenandoah and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.

Under the Chesapeake Bay Agreement, the Commonwealth of Virginia promised to reduce its share of the nitrogen and phosphorus runoff entering the Bay by 40 percent. The Sheaffer system goes beyond that. With its help, nitrogen discharges by its users dropped 54 percent and phosphorus loads were cut by 47 percent. These are significant drops for the two municipal customers and the food processors, Rocco and Wampler Foods. Together, the four were dumping more than 200,000 pounds of phosphorus and nitrogen into the watershed each year before switching. In addition, the nasty odor associated with traditional treatment facilities disappeared. Only a weak, salty smell could be discerned and that just within a few feet of the treatment cells.

In addition to no discharge and virtually no odor, the Sheaffer system boasts no sludge. The decomposition process eliminates it. According to a company brochure, "One million gallons of wastewater treated in the Sheaffer Circular System results in approximately 60 pounds of inorganic solids. After treating that same million gallons of wastewater, a conventional treatment system would produce approximately 2,000 pounds (one dry ton) of sludge which must be burned, barged out to sea, chemically processed, or trucked to a landfill where it could leach into the groundwater."

In the past, Sheaffer International built systems and then sold them to the users, but the North Fork project represents a new way of doing business. Hoping to protect itself from the ebbs and flows of the engineering market, Sheaffer owns and operates the treatment facility and charges the municipalities and food processors for its services. The company calls the new business plan, BOOM, which stands for build, own, operate, and maintain. "[BOOM] gives us confidence that our good name will not be besmirched by someone who does not build it properly or operate it properly," added one company vice president.

Tim Maupin worked as the manager of corporate environmental affairs for the Rocco food processing company when the Sheaffer project came on line. He pointed out, "It's a good deal for us. We don't have to make any capital investments for wastewater improvements and it keeps us focused on what we do best, processing chickens and turkeys."

While the companies and towns feel good about their efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, they must be equally giddy about the financial savings from the system. The town of Timberville estimates that its deal with Sheaffer will save 15 percent on sewage treatment costs in the first year alone. At the same time, because the systems are fairly simple, low operations and maintenance costs allow the company to turn a healthy profit on its investment. Additional cost savings come from the construction costs, which are generally 25 percent less than comparable systems.

Right now, Sheaffer International has at least one other plant planned in Virginia and another dozen BOOM projects in some stage of planning elsewhere in the United States, including North Carolina, Ohio, West Virginia, and the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia peninsula. As long as companies and towns continue to create waste, Sheaffer plans to be there to profit off of it. And if it helps the environment in the process? Well, that's okay, too.

J. Bishop Grewell is a research associate with the Political Economy Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Montana and a visiting fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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