ANNAPOLIS – Western Maryland mine operators and Eastern Shore poultry growers may have a common solution to their biggest environmental headaches.
The chicken farmers’ problem? What to do with all that manure, whose nutrients leach into the state’s waterways, throwing the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem off-kilter.
And the mine operators? Acidic water, full of harmful metals, seeps out of abandoned mines, poisoning water for miles downstream.
But there may be a way to put that manure to work in the mines to neutralize acid drainage and encourage healthy plant growth, protecting the environment in both places. The base in the manure cancels out the acid from the mines– a solution so simple that even a high school chemistry student can understand it.
The mine reclamation scheme is among more than a dozen ideas being considered by the Maryland Agricultural Stewardship Commission — an advisory board created by the General Assembly in April to come up with ways to protect the bay from harmful effects of farming without hurting the farmers themselves.
The ideas, which range from the novel to the mundane, include:
*Converting the chicken manure into pellets, which can then be used as so-called bio-fuel.
*Planting trees around chicken houses to improve air quality and soak up excess nutrients.
*Increasing payments to farmers to encourage them to plant cover crops in the off-season.
Members of the commission — including groups that have traditionally not gotten along particularly well — say they now recognize their fates are intertwined. Now, they say, the watchword is “whatever works.”
Del. Maggie McIntosh (D, Baltimore), one of four co-chairs for the commission, said her goal is to use the information gathered to develop incentives to persuade farmers to adopt environmentally sensitive practices, not to punish them. “We want carrots, no sticks,” she said.
Other commission members echoed that sentiment. “My goal is to make sure that agriculture is viable in the state, and make it environmentally friendly,” said Del. J.B. Jennings. (R, Baltimore and Harford counties). At this point in the commission’s work, he said, the primary mission is to pinpoint the problems. “Once you’ve identified the problem, you’re halfway done.”
Kim Coble, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a member of the commission, said she was pleased that there was no longer any debate about whether something had to be done. Now the question is coming up with solutions and figuring out how to make things happen, she said. “It’s a good problem to have.”
The commission has worked to reach out to farmers, sponsoring “listening sessions” throughout the state as part of its fact-finding efforts this summer. Each meeting has drawn about 100 people from the community, primarily farmers, said Mark P. Whalen, vice president of the Maryland Agricultural Commission.
Many of the most unusual ideas will require more followup.
Take, for example, the idea to use manure in the mines, which was mentioned briefly in a presentation by William Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Association and a member of the commission.
It’s not unprecedented — Pennsylvania and West Virginia have experimented with such programs — but it has never been tried in Maryland. John Carey, the director of Maryland’s Bureau of Mines, said his agency had not been contacted yet with such a proposal but is open to testing the idea.
Tuesday’s meeting was also the first Jennings had heard of the possibility of using chicken litter to clean up mines, but said he found the idea intriguing and planned to study it further.
No matter how novel the idea, however, finding a solution for the problem with chicken manure always seems to come down to one thing: transportation.
Satterfield said the state has a program to subsidize those costs, but he said it has often been underfunded. At one time, the state’s manure transport fund was budgeted at $750,000, but it now has only $250,000.
Another area commission members said may be underfunded is agricultural research. Satterfield asked the commission to look for ways promote research at the state’s universities, particularly to develop chicken feeds that reduce the amount of ammonia in chicken litter, considered by environmental groups to be a serious pollutant in the Bay.
Whalen, vice president of the Maryland Agricultural Commission, agreed with Satterfield. “We’re relying on research done in the 70s and 80s.” Satterfield said what poultry producers need most, however, is patience. “It took a long time to get the Chesapeake and its tributaries in this situation, it’s going to take a long time to get us out,” he said. –