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Our Tax Money, Our Environment, Our health, and Chicken Poop

I just got the straight poop on Perdue’s big chicken burner.  In December, construction starts on a $100 million dollar 10 Megawatt electricity plant burning poultry litter in Somerset County on the Eastern Shore.  Perdue Agribusiness Inc. in partnership with energy giant Fibrowatt LLC will, under current law, sell the energy to the state of Maryland, thus making the factory profitable. 

Construction of the plant will generate 180 jobs, with 25 permanent jobs once it is built.  It will produce what current Maryland law defines as renewable energy while disposing of waste, a major problem with the factory farming industry.   The Maryland poultry industry produces 350,000 tons of poultry waste a year, approximately 300,000 more than the local ecology—the manure is spread on fields—can absorb.  This results in serious water pollution, culminating in large dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay, damaging, among other things, fisheries and tourism there.

Perdue calls poultry waste renewable because it comes in a constant stream, and thus, according to Perdue President, Dick Wiley, “the only commercially viable  [disposal] technology is combustion.”  Wiley is wrong in regards to taxpayer money, public health, renewable resources, and environment.

Part of the problem lies in the definition of “renewable.”  Thirty-three US States have accepted the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (RPS), which requires increased proportion of renewables as renewable energy sources; the state of Maryland has pledged to 20% use of renewables by 2020.  The loose definition of these includes wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass. 

The problems occur with biomass.  Fermenting unwanted algae—or garbage or agricultural waste—will produce clean methane gas and generally leave useful compost.  Just burning, say, wood by products, produces carbon emissions.   Growing corn for ethanol has thrown off world food prices.  Considering the fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, and water needed to grow it, corn ethanol is neither economic nor sustainable.  Likewise with chicken litter.

Burning poultry litter produces as many or more toxins than coal.  Poultry litter includes carbon monoxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide, dioxin, and arsenic, which lead to high rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, morbidity, and cancer, as well as global climate change. 

Much of this ends up in the water anyway.  Burning it, therefore, only changes the nature of the harm, transforming it from water to air and water pollution.  Somerset County holds one of Maryland’s most vulnerable populations, with half of Maryland’s median income, less than half the median number of college graduates, and the state’s highest percentage of minorities.   These folks will breath the highest concentration of this smoke.

Contrary to what the agricultural lobby has gotten written into the law, chicken waste is not a renewable source.  Unlike wind, sun, or geothermal, it derives from other resources: the feed needed to raise chickens, water, and fertilizer.    One ton of chicken meat, for instance, requires 8,226.3 gallons of water and 16 tons of manure (or the equivalent values of artificial fertilizer).  

Recycling the manure of those chickens—ideally, where the feed was grown—restores the soil.  To do this without the pollution caused by current methods of disposal, the manure must be fully composted and spread at rates that the soil can assimilate.  This entails transporting it to where it is needed.  Burning it essentially leaches the soil from which the feed came, leading usually to more applications of nitrate fertilizer, which also pollutes.

Direct incineration also wastes the methane from it that can be used much more cleanly.  Thus, through incineration, both government and industry ignore two rich potential secondary industries, compost and methane.

Milwaukee, has exported Mil-Organite since 1926, while Spain, in its recession, has started industrial composting that employs people and helps restart the economy.  Railheads exist to get the feed in and the chickens out; they could also serve to ship composted manure pellets.   The US has a growing demand for organically raised products that this could meet.  According to an Associated Press article of May 10, 2011, Perdue has started a composting plant in Delaware; we should see the same effort in Maryland rather than what is essentially subsidized pollution. 

Methane generation, meanwhile, could start by providing local needs-- fuel for county or state vehicles--eventually expanding to meet other needs.   Its use would offset the carbon generated elsewhere when the compost pellets—which are bulkier than artificial fertilizer--leave train cars for trucks.   For chicken farmers of any size, judicious use of taxes and subsidies could thus jump start two collateral industries—pelletized compost fertilizer and methane gas.

Factory farms present no free market.  Vertical integration by the four main chicken producers—essentially an oligopoly--allows the companies to dictate production contracts to chicken farmers.  Thus no open cash market has existed for broiler chickens since the 1950’s--the firms set prices.  Growers must accept contracts and all legal and financial responsibility for environmental problems, and must rebuild chicken houses (thus incurring new debt) when directed.  The poultry industry in general has one of the highest rates of illness and injury of any industry, according to the US GAO, and systematically blocks workers’ compensation and underpays employees for their hours.

Some argue that feeding a country this size requires factory farms; others question the advantages of an industry this big, dirty, and powerful.  We do not have space here to pursue the arguments.  Certainly, however, our economy, society and environment pay for the waste and corruption inherent under the present oligopoly.  We need to re-examine this project, and in longer term, re-define renewables under the RPS.   If we would subsidize waste reduction, it makes more sense to use the tools of subsidy and tax breaks to help start a new, cleaner approach that could eventually thrive on its own than to switch from supporting one form of waste and pollution to another.  

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