(Posted by Michele Merkel.)
Here’s an idea: When the whole world is becoming more aware of the many environmental ills and human health impacts from burning fossil fuels to make electricity, when we’re growing tired of asthma rates, air pollution and noxious odors, when there is a concerted effort to make a responsible move towards clean energy systems where limitless wind and sunlight provide pollution-free energy, let’s ignore all of that and put our resources and effort into coming up with something else to burn for our electricity. How about chicken manure? That’s right, now we’re going to burn chicken poop because our political leaders won’t make the Delmarva poultry giants – the Tysons and the Perdues – figure out what else to do with their mountains of unsustainable waste.
According to the EPA, agriculture is the greatest contributor to Chesapeake Bay pollution. The poultry industry alone generates over 1 billion pounds of untreated waste on the Delmarva Peninsula every year. While poultry litter can be a valuable fertilizer for crops due to its high nutrient content, much of it is over-applied to land, resulting in nitrogen and phosphorous run-off into our waterways. These nutrients rob our waters of oxygen, choking out aquatic life. Because of the recent, renewed focus on cleaning up the Bay, desperation is mounting to find disposal alternatives to land application of excess poultry litter. This pressure, coupled with Maryland’s desire to promote waste-to-energy solutions, has put poultry waste incineration on the front burner.
Fibrowatt, a Pennsylvania-based company, has been lobbying hard to build the first litter-to-energy power plants in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. They claim that their Maryland plant would combust 465,000 tons of poultry litter a year, resulting in significant nitrogen and phosphorous reductions that contribute to poor water quality. At the same time, they would be producing a low cost renewable energy on the Eastern Shore. Sounds like a win-win, right?
There is only one poultry litter incineration plant that is operational in the United States. It is in Benson, Minnesota, and it is owned by Fibrowatt. According to its permit, the Benson plant emits more arsenic, a toxic chemical added to poultry feed, excreted in the waste, and released as a byproduct of incineration, than any other source in the state. (Just last month the Delmarva poultry industry beat back legislation that would have made arsenic in chicken feed illegal under Maryland law.) Arsenic is a known human carcinogen and has been associated with multiple types of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, endocrine disruption, and decreased immunity. In addition, the Benson plant is among the highest emitters of other toxic chemicals such as sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, and dioxin.
A recent, peer-reviewed journal article summarizes the environmental health and environmental justice issues associated with the incineration of poultry waste. It found that many of the emissions, including those mentioned above, are associated with a variety of diseases and functional impairments. Moreover, its analyses revealed that emissions from litter-to-energy power plants can be greater than from plants that use other forms of fuel, including coal. Finally, poor rural communities will suffer the most, because it is where industrial agriculture is concentrated and these communities tend to lack the political clout to prevent the siting of other polluting industries such as power plants.
So if we can’t dump excess poultry waste on the ground to protect the water we drink, and we can’t incinerate it to protect the air we breathe, what do we do?
The logical solution would be to promote strategies that reduce the waste stream in the first place. But so far, fewer chickens hasn’t been politically palatable. To the contrary, by making poultry waste a “profitable commodity” we may actually increase consolidation of the industry further in order to meet the waste inputs necessary to generate electricity. Worse yet, Fibrowatt expects farmers to sign 10-20 year supply contracts, making it nearly impossible for them to ever transition to a more sustainable way of raising chickens.
The next best alternative is to make companies like Perdue pay to transport the excess waste out of the watershed since they profit substantially on the backs of contract farmers who are burdened with the waste generated by Perdue’s chickens. Of course, this assumes that we can continue the shell game of moving excess animal waste around the country, which isn’t sustainable when NRCS studies demonstrate that the problem we have in Delmarva is a nationwide one–we simply produce more animal waste than we can manage through land disposal.
Until industry and its political apologists stop pretending that they can bring sustainably to an inherently unsustainable system with a bunch of avoidance schemes, one thing is clear: Any waste-to-energy process that creates toxic air pollution isn’t clean, renewable or acceptable. If we truly have a burning desire to clean up the Bay, we should be investing in clean technologies, such as wind and solar, while simultaneously demanding that Big Poultry manage its waste in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the health and environment of Chesapeake Bay communities.