ANNAPOLIS Environmentalists have some reservations about plans to burn chicken manure as fuel for power plants ironically an effort promoted to help with a different environmental problem, the fish-killing disease Pfiesteria piscicida.
Proposals to convert two Maryland power plants to burn chicken manure instead of oil and wood chips raise many questions for environmentalists, who are concerned about the impact on air and water quality.
“Any time you burn something, there are environmental concerns,” said Paul Schwartz, national campaigns director for Clean Water Action, an environmental organization that works to ensure clean and safe water.
More than 400,000 tons of chicken waste are produced every year in Maryland, according to state officials. Delaware produces another 300,000 tons. Farmers often spread the waste on their land as fertilizer, a practice blamed for contributing to the 1997 Pfiesteria outbreak, which affected fish in the Chesapeake Bay and other waters.
Maryland Environmental Services, a state agency that runs the power plant that provides heat and electricity to the Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County, wants to convert its present wood chip-burning system to one that burns chicken litter, pending the results of a feasibility study due in March.
Conectiv, a Delaware-based company, wants to do the same with its oil-fired plant in Vienna, Md.
The environmental agency and Conectiv are basing their plans on a model developed by the British company, Fibrowatt, which built several chicken waste-burning plants in England.
Schwartz said he is concerned that there will not be a consistent supply of chicken waste, forcing the power plants to augment their fuel supply with other types of waste that could threaten air quality.
“What are the residuals in the air and in the ash from burning chicken manure, and what are the plans for dealing with the leftover components?” he said.
He said these air quality concerns turn into water problems.
“What goes up must come down,” he said. Pollutants “come back down in the water.”
Incineration is not necessarily the best option for disposing of animal waste, Schwartz said.
“You could be saddling the state and the community with a huge white elephant if a cheaper means of disposal becomes available,” he said. “We think that the state is running to a solution that it may not have thought through all the way.”
Preliminary studies about the environmental effects of burning the waste are favorable, said William Paul, combustion and metallurgical division chief at the Maryland Department of the Environment.
He said data indicates that burning chicken waste would not have any significant negative impact on air quality. Studies show that chicken waste is cleaner than coal and oil fuels and that burning it is similar to burning wood chips, a common fuel source, he said.
“Nothing can be said with absolute certainty, but it does look promising,” Paul said.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said it supports any effort to find alternatives to manure disposal.
“When incineration is involved, we need to consider air pollution,” said David Slater, director of communications for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “As long as that’s being considered, we support any efforts to find a solution.”
Burning the waste as fuel has the support of state officials, who want to see a solution to Maryland’s chicken- waste disposal problem.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Delaware Gov. Thomas R. Carper met Monday to discuss the possibility of burning poultry waste to generate power and help reduce water pollution.
U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, plans to introduce legislation that would give certain tax incentives to companies that use animal waste as fuel. Current laws give tax credits to other environmentally friendly means of producing electricity. U.S. Sen. William J. Roth, R-Del., plans to reintroduce a similar bill in the Senate.
The state began researching alternate ways to produce power after the 1997 Pfiesteria outbreak.
“Chicken litter offers the environmental advantage of disposing of a higher level of waste. It’s environmentally sound and economical,” said James W. Peck, director and CEO of Maryland Environmental Service.
Peck said incineration would reduce waste to just a fraction of its original volume, making it easier and cheaper to transport. It also would produce odorless, storable and sterile ash that could be used as fertilizer.
Several potential problems with the source waste still must be worked out, including odor control, transport and spread of poultry diseases.