ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Water going in and water going out central to Wholestone Farms plans for pork plant in Sioux Falls

Processing hogs requires a tremendous amount of water. Opponents of a new slaughterhouse in the city limits say it will stress supply and raise concerns about the amount and quality of the discharge. Wholestone maintains modern design anticipates potential problems.

WSF-Plant-Front-1.jpeg
An architecural rendering of Wholestone Farm's hog processing plant planned for Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Contributed / Aaron I. Hoffman
We are part of The Trust Project.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — It takes a lot of water to turn a live pig into pork chops, ham and bacon.

A key element in Wholestone Farms’ decision to build a pork plant in northeast Sioux Falls is access to a dependable water supply.

“Any plant is going to use a tremendous amount of water,” said Terry Houser, the Smithfield Foods chair in meat science extension at Iowa State University.

Water coming in and water going out.

Those challenges are among the points that city voters will weigh when they go to the polls on Nov. 8.

ADVERTISEMENT

The city currently has plenty of drinkable water coming in, which is required to produce safe meat. The going out question is how you cleanse and dispense of wastewater when you’re done.

The potential for pollution is one of the top points of contention for Wholestone’s detractors. The plan includes building a $45 million treatment plant, which will remove the solids, compounds and chemicals before discharging the clean water back into the Big Sioux River.

Pollution is a top-of-mind issue, in part, because wastewater has been a problem at the Smithfield pork plant near Falls Park. Smithfield and previous owners have faced numerous fines over the decades for violations of its discharge permit, including about $100,000 total for violations in 2018 and 2019.

Wholestone leaders counter that reputation, saying a new plant won’t suffer from those same problems. Proper planning, modern technology and redundancy can prevent problems before they become environmental violations, they say.

Smart Growth Sioux Falls is asking voters to change local ordinances to ban any future slaughterhouses from building in city limits. While Wholestone’s name does not appear on the ballot, the farmer-owned cooperative’s plan to build the plant is what motivated the initiated measure.

The potential odor is the centerpiece of Smart Growth’s “stop the stink” campaign, but it’s water, labor and transportation that brought Wholestone to Sioux Falls.

“Wholestone’s slaughterhouse would draw an additional three million gallons per day from our city’s water supply, making water scarcer for everyone else. The plant would guzzle up more water each day than 32,000 typical South Dakota residents,” Robert Peterson, Smart Growth’s treasurer and spokesperson, said in a statement.

How much water?

Smart Growth says they aren’t against the plant or value-added agriculture, just not in the city limits. But the quality and quantity of water required is precisely why Wholestone wants to be inside that line.

ADVERTISEMENT

It’s that balance between competing interests, between the ideal landscape and the hard reality, that voters must balance.

How much water is involved?

On average, a pork processing plant in the United States uses 100 gallons of water for every pig slaughtered. That includes all the water used for things like refrigeration, creating steam for sterilization and scalding, carcass cleaning, hand washing and restrooms.

Rachel Kloos.PNG
Rachel Kloos, water/wasterwater group leader for ISG in Sioux Falls.
Contributed / ISG

The Wholestone plant, because it’s a new facility, would use around half that, said Rachel Kloos, the water and wastewater group leader for ISG, the Sioux Falls engineering firm that is designing the plant.

That’s because they are conserving and reusing water at a greater rate than an older plant, she said. The federal government and the food industry at large, facing increasing challenges from climate change and other factors, stress that finding ways to reduce water consumption is paramount.

Kloos estimates the Wholestone plant will use about a million gallons of water a day but they have requested 1.5 to 2 million gallons a day from the City of Sioux Falls Public Works Department.

Representatives for the city did not respond to several interview requests from Forum News Service on the topic.

Federal food safety regulations require that any animal processing plant begins the process with “potable” water, which means it’s safe for humans to drink. But it’s still not clean enough to ensure it doesn’t introduce any contaminants, so additional treatment is required.

ADVERTISEMENT

“We need our water to be as clean as possible,” said Kloos. “The good quality water that is coming from the City of Sioux Falls allows us to be more efficient in our process.”

Treating the wastewater

Then there’s the water going out.

The plant design includes a standalone water treatment facility. While it’s similar in concept to how a city treats water from homes and businesses, there are additional steps that are required to remove the pig parts, hair and some other solids which have value, such as fats, oils and grease.

Then the wastewater goes into covered lagoons where anaerobic digestion, which means there is no oxygen present. This process uses biological compounds to remove organic materials, which is common in wastewater treatment.

Wholestone wasterwater illustration.PNG
This schematic shows the flow of wastewater in the proposed treatment facility for Wholestone Farms pork processing plant in Sioux Falls. DAF is an acronym for dissolved air flotation system, which removes suspended solids and recovers fats, oils and grease, or FOG. MMBR stands for moving bed biofilm reactor, which is part of the process that removes ammonia and phosphorus to reduce odor.
Contributed / Wholestone Farms

Methane gas is a byproduct of the covered lagoons. That gas is captured and used as fuel, replacing as much natural gas as possible.

When it’s completely treated, the water will be pumped into the Big Sioux River.

The city as a whole has a discharge allocation of 30 million gallons of water a day, said Kloos. The Wholestone plant will discharge a maximum of 3 million gallons, which is similar to that of Smithfield.

Smithfield also has a wastewater treatment facility, which was built in 1982 and updated several times since, most recently in 2019, according to inspection documents from the South Dakota Department of Natural Resources.

The capacity of the Smithfield treatment system was upgraded in 2019 to deal with heavy rainfall events, according to the DENR.

“The Big Sioux has an allocation. The state says you can put this much in before it gets stressed,” said Kloos. “The state looks at that very closely and makes sure that we don't stress the ecosystem.”

Smart Growth contends that the potential for degrading the water quality of the Big Sioux — which exits the city shortly after flowing past Smithfield, the city’s wastewater plant and the Wholestone site — isn’t worth the added risk.

Robert Peterson
Robert Peterson, treasurer for Smart Growth Sioux Falls, which opposes new slaughterhouses in Sioux Falls.
Contributed

“Pollution in the Big Sioux is already over the limit and last year earned an ‘F’ grade for unsafe levels of sediment, E. Coli, and nitrates,” Peterson said in a statement. “Any significant increase from slaughterhouses would jeopardize water quality, recreation, and wildlife — and potentially restrict future commercial development.”

There are no guarantees, said Kloos.

But that’s why the system is designed with redundancies and backups that anticipate potential problems. Today’s facilities have the benefit of the lessons learned from the past. Those experiences inform today’s technology, Kloos said.

“I’d be silly to say we’ve never run into issues, that would be ridiculous,” she said. “The more we can plan and prepare, the more we can reduce those situations.”

Outside the city

There aren’t that many sources for that much water in the region.

It’s a limiting factor when it comes to industrial development outside the city limits of Sioux Falls.

The Minnehaha Community Water Corporation supplies the households and businesses outside of Sioux Falls, Brandon and Valley Springs. The corporation is allocated 2 million gallons a day from the Lewis & Clark pipeline but relies on the Big Sioux aquifer for the rest of its needs.

The peak use for those customers is nearly 7 million gallons, said Scott Buss, the corporation's executive director.

Buss said he gets inquiries from companies looking to build in the county but water is a limiting factor.

Recently an agriculture company was hoping to get a million gallons a day for a new development.

“We had to say there is not enough source water in Minnehaha County today to support that,” Buss said.

A million gallons a day can support 4,300 rural households, he said. “That forces some tough decisions.”

Jesse_Fonkert_Headshot_2021_sml.jpg
Jesse Fonkert, CEO of Sioux Metro Growth Alliance.
Contributed / Sioux Metro Growth Alliance

It would be extremely difficult to find a site for a project on the scale of Wholestone Farms in the area, said Jesse Fonkert, CEO of Sioux Metro Growth Alliance, which is an economic development arm of Minnehaha and Lincoln counties.

The Alliance opposes the Nov. 8 ballot initiative that would ban future slaughterhouses in Sioux Falls, saying it would set a bad precedent for business development.

Regardless of the results of the election, the availability of water and utilities is a clear problem. And beyond that, if those needs can be met, there could be zoning challenges outside of Sioux Falls, said Fonkert.

“It’s not impossible with the right players and the right approach,” he said. “I don't have a single site today that could handle Wholestone if they wanted to start construction tomorrow.”

Houser, the Iowa State Extension economist, said the Sioux Falls area needs more pork processing capacity, given the number of pigs produced in the region, including in Northwest Iowa.

It’s not easy, but it’s necessary to ensure food security long-term, he said.

“You need a lot of water, you need utilities and a labor force. You have to have access to transportation and livestock,” Houser said. “They are all in that area around Sioux Falls. Why would we want to drag them all over the earth to get them slaughtered when you could do it so close to where they are being raised?”

MORE FROM PATRICK LALLEY:

Patrick Lalley is the engagement editor and reporter for Sioux Falls Live. Reach him at plalley@siouxfallslive.com.
What To Read Next
A new tool to allow neighboring counties to crowdfund shared jails is on its way to the Senate after passing committee 7-1.
While a tax committee passed the cut to the food tax on the basis of its independent policy merits, the real discussion will come as appropriators consider it in the context of the entire budget.
Local governments erase invisible routes hunters use to access public land
Back to school or off to jail.