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Farm Transforms Chicken Manure into Oil and Gas

In June, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s administration imposed new regulations on poultry manure meant to reduce a major source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

The phosphorus management rules mean that as much as two thirds of all chicken litter once used as fertilizer on Eastern Shore farm fields will be homeless. Farmers will no longer be able to spread the waste in fields, just to get rid of it.

That creates mountains of headaches for farmers like Michelle Chesnick, who grows  a half million chickens a year, which produce about two million tons of manure.

“ You have to ask yourself?  Where does it all go?” Chesnick asked. “What do we do with it now? I don’t know where it is going to go.”

In an attempt to answer this question, the Maryland Department of Agriculture has been giving away millions of dollars in grants to experimental projects that will recycle the manure into a range of innovative and useful products.

The most recent was last week, when the state agency granted $1.2 million to an Alabama-based company called Renewable Oil International.   Over the next year, the firm plans to build a large machine on the Chesnicks’ farm that will heat up the manure in a compartment without air and convert the waste into oil, gas, and a charcoal-like product called “bio-char.”

The oil will be used to make asphalt.  The gas – called “syngas” – will be burned as a fuel to power to machine.  And the bio-char will be sold to industries, which use charcoal as filters in their smokestacks. It will also go to farmers and gardeners, who can use the granulated powder as fertilizer.

The biggest benefit:  Bio-char is about half the weight of poultry manure, so it can be more easily trucked to other farms and businesses that need it.

“That’s the biggest thing – it’s half the volume, so that’s a good thing,” Chesnick said.  “Will this take care of all of our problems?  My God, I hope it will.  Would I say absolutely?  Nobody can say that with certainty.  What I can say with certainty is this: We must find alternative use for the litter, and something to do with it – we cannot just stockpile litter because we are not spreading it on the ground.  And stacking it in piles, or putting it in barns, until we find something to do with it is really not a feasible solution.  Anybody who cares about the environment should agree.”

Royden Powell,  Assistant Secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA), said that, in the past, Governor O’Malley’s administration was looking into ways to burn poultry manure in incinerators to generate electricity. But that raised concerns about air pollution, and the idea has not gone anywhere.

Powell said that creating bio-oil and other products might be a cleaner solution than incineration. The state might expand the project on the Chesnick farm and replicate it all over the Eastern Shore -- if it works, Powell said.

“To the extent that we can be creative, that we can be innovative, that we can find new technologies for manures, they have the potential to provide new revenue streams or opportunities for our farmers,” Powell said.  “We address the environmental issue, and we provide economic opportunities or offsets for our farmers.”

There is a potential problem with bio-char, however. It actually contains more phosphorus, per pound, than poultry manure.  So if farmers spread it on their fields as fertilizer in areas that are already over-loaded with phosphorous from manure  – such as much of the Eastern Shore – it could actually create more runoff pollution to the Chesapeake Bay.

“First of all, we are glad to see that the (state’s new phosphorus regulations) are generating this rush of new technologies to help figure out what to do with all the manure,” said Kathy Phillips, the Assateague Coastkeeper, an environmental activist. “My concern about the phosphorus is that I would hope that the Maryland Department of Agriculture would be making absolutely certain that this byproduct from the new plant would only go to fields within the Chesapeake watershed that are totally deficient of phosphorous. Other than that, it needs to be exported outside of the Chesapeake and coastal bays watershed, entirely.”

If handled wrong, alternative energy and alternative fertilizer products could just create alternative problems.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.