Ramble On

Friday, February 12, 2010

When I first became aware of Fibrowatt, one of the questions a friend raised was this one: “You would be removing thousands of tons of poultry litter from the ground that might otherwise have found its way into the Chesapeake Bay. What is the effect of poultry litter on the Chesapeake Bay? More importantly, what is the effect of poultry litter in the more immediate area of disposal?” So I thought I might take a few minutes and look into this further.

Another friend wrote me about the impact of chicken litter as fertilizer, and why its use is regulated:

“The whole reason that litter is being regulated is the P (Phosphorus). P binds to negatively-charged soil particles and thus becomes unavailable for plant uptake. This is why our soil levels are high in P – it is not mobile, and litter in general is high in P. Farmers are using the litter as a cheap source for N, but the problem is the buildup of P. When we get heavy rains and soil erosion, the soil, laden with P, flows into the river and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.”

High level scans of a few Wikipedia articles on pollution in the Chesapeake Bay reference Phosporus as a major component. This issue is also referenced in a Washington Post article I found about a potential Fibrowatt plant on the Eastern Shore (link at the end of the blog post):

“If successful, the project also will help reduce a source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Although the raw waste has long been recognized as a top-notch fertilizer, if applied too heavily, it can flush into waterways and eventually the bay. That has led to severe restrictions on its use.”

My friend closed his message with a thought about using the litter ash as fertilizer: “…the idea that the farmer is going to buy the P back is doubtful, since that is the exact nutrient that is causing all of the problems.”

Another source of information on these impacts can be found on the Yadkin River Keeper website (link below), where the organization has taken an aggressive approach to inform the public about Fibrowatt’s combustion processes and other impacts. Noteworthy is a white paper document that can be found on their site (by scrolling to the bottom and clicking on “APPENDIX” – I could not get this link to work from my blog), which lists a wide range of chemical emissions, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, and hydrochloric acid. The Yadkin River Keeper document cites a number of sources for this work, specifically permitting documents that outline how and when these emissions can occur.

Another point of interest from the Yadkin group is the requirement for water to operate the plant. The town of Elkin, where one of the NC locations is proposed to be located, had agreed to provide approximately 300,000 gallons of water per day for plant operations. This is a requirement and an impact that Page County will need to examine in further detail, both from a supply standpoint and a waste discharge standpoint.

This data suggests that significant work needs to be done on negotiating the prospect for a Fibrowatt plant here, and raise the same issues that a number of blog readers have commented on:

  • Can these emissions be managed so that they don’t impact Page County’s primary industry – tourism (both for the Caverns and other private stakeholders as well as for the Shenandoah National Park)?

  • Can the county and neighboring towns afford to make the infrastructure investments that are needed to support a plant like this?

  • How will the proposed plant impact the agricultural sector, including growers, poultry farms, and supporting industry?

These are just a few of the questions the information in today’s post brings to mind. My next step is to review the citizens’ council records in Minnesota and North Carolina to see how the company and communities engaged these issues – that will help shed some light on what might happen in Page County.

On a closing note, I mentioned yesterday that my purpose is not to advocate one way or another on the prospect of a Fibrowatt plant in Page County. I’m going to stand by that statement and want the blog to be a source of information for due diligence on the question. But there is one opinion that I still hold, and want to repeat, regarding Project Clover as a destination for industrial use.

From the information above, it is clear once again that the real estate at Project Clover is not suited for industrial use – Fibrowatt or otherwise. For one thing, the potential for visible emissions in the center of the Valley is an unacceptable impact to the area’s natural beauty. The land there is in the “viewshed” of the National Park, visible from Big Meadow Lodge and Skyland Lodge, as well as several important summits (Hawksbill, Stonyman, and Miller’s Head) and historically significant overlooks on Skyline Drive.

The infrastructure is not present at Clover to support these uses. The roadways cannot sustain increased vehicular traffic and loads. The geology may enhance the risk of negative environmental impacts. It’s much better to see this kind of development elsewhere in the county, closer to highways that can handle truck traffic and where power and water infrastructure likely already exist.

I’d note again that this is a general statement of my opinion, not specific to the Fibrowatt plant, although if the issues cannot be resolved, it makes additional industrial development in the county unfeasible.

References today:



Jay Dedman said...

According to this article, Fiberwatt will be allowed to burn more than just chicken litter in their proposed NC plants: http://bit.ly/cgexgK

"A majority of the residents did not know Fibrowatt LLC could burn wood products and biomass other than chicken litter."

This must be a transparent process. Sounds like a big incinerator. right in the middle of the county. If this was a coal plant, would we be cool with it? Why does a "poultry litter" plant make it better?

I also question whether it's more dangerous to burn chicken litter than it is to spread it on fields. One is more localized. The other is widespread. (The issues of industrial chicken farms is a separate issue.)

Jim said...

These are good points, Jay.

I think Terry has already mentioned the need to use a mix of other biomass fuels to supplement the litter in a comment here...my sense is that's an upfront acknowledgement.

Whether a biomass combustion plant is appropriate for Page County is the real question for us. The issues are similar to coal in some ways, except it's a renewable source. I do want to dig in a bit more on the Minnesota experience to learn what those citizens' concerns were, and how they were addressed.

The problem I've learned about with spreading litter (let's make it clear this is through research as I have no practical experience as a farmer) is that much of the phosporus isn't absorbed in the local soils and eventually runs off. In Page Valley, that means it makes its way to the Shenandoah, the Potomac, and then the Chesapeake - so it does have a regional impact as opposed to a local one.

That said, after the litter combustion process, the P remains in the ash, and so it is still a problem if the ash is used for fertilizer in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Jay Dedman said...

So it sounds like litter from industrial poultry farms is the actual issue. Burn it or spread it into the rivers...the chemicals must go somewhere. Not sure if that's a very good argument in favor of Fiberwatt. You want me to punch you in the face or the stomach?

I would love to see a couple clear pages of known facts from Fiberwatt.
--how many tons of chicken litter will be burned each week.
--How many tons of other combustibles?
--What exactly will these other combustibles be?
--How many trucks will be driving into their factory each day?
--How many fulltime local jobs will be created and maintained once the plant is built?
--How many of these jobs will go to people who live in Page Co currently vs. jobs given to people who are imported from out of the area. It's common for corporations to bring in management and technical staff from outside headquarters.
--Provide pollution results from their plant in Minnesota. They have more than enough data now to back up any claims they make. Independent studies would of course be more believable.
--Who will build the transmission lines, industrial roads, and other infrastructure needed at Project Clover to support their plant.
--What projected taxes to they plan to pay annually that will benefit Page County? Would like to see it projected over a 10-year period.
--Explain how they dispose of the burnt materials from their plant. Will it be sent to Battle Creek dump?
--Where will they get the water they need to feed such a large energy plant?
--Where will they dispose of their dirty water?
--What tax breaks are they asking for from Page County to come here.

These are the answers anyone would need to begin having an informed opinion.

Page County citizens will welcome any company that wants to contribute to the longtime health and wealth of our home. Exploiters would be silly to apply.

Jim said...

Great questions. I just turned them into a post. Thank you. :-)

My only thing here is, I don't think Project Clover is an appropriate site for ANY industrial uses...here is a link to the reasons I believe that: