Cleaning Up the Chesapeake Bay by Turning Chicken Poop Into Biofuel

Cleaning Up the Chesapeake Bay By Turning Chicken Poop Into Biofuel

For Maryland environmentalists, cleaning up the iconic Chesapeake Bay has long been at the top of the agenda. But when your state’s most viable industry is chicken production, the task becomes that much more difficult. Agricultural runoff makes cleaning up the bay seem insurmountable.

That’s why the state is always looking for a place to put the poop. Last week, a New Hampshire developer met with Maryland legislators and chicken giant Perdue to discuss plans to turn chicken poop into energy. The three discussed building a $200 million energy plant tasked with converting the waste into biofuel.

“Maryland has to import energy. We’re a net consumer of energy. We don’t have enough power generation in the state,” Bill Dennison, professor and vice president for science applications at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science said to Think Progress. “We need energy. We need to deal with the excess chicken manure. [The power plant] makes a lot of sense.”

Maryland has a chicken poop problem. It’s the country’s top producer of chicken meat–nearly 305 million chickens are sourced from the state every year. In fact, the industry makes up 40 percent of the total cash generated from farming. This contributes to the 650 million pounds of chicken poop produced annually, according to Think Progress.

The chicken poop is an environmental bummer, to put it mildly. It’s high in phosphorus so when it becomes runoff–especially at that scale–it generates the growth of algae blooms in the Chesapeake Bay, which starves the bay of other wildlife. But this new plant would turn the poop into biofuel through anaerobic digestion.

Environmental groups fear that Maryland isn’t dealing with the toxic chicken waste problem directly. Instead, it’s letting Perdue, headquartered in the state, off the hook once again, and the bay is paying the price.

“We’ve spent 40 years in Maryland trying to come up with ways to handle Perdue’s waste problem without asking Perdue to do it themselves,” Scott Edwards, co-director of Food and Water Watch’s Food & Water Justice Project, told ThinkProgress. “They keep coming up with ways to not address the problem, which is the unsustainable nature of this industry.”

In January, as one of his first acts as governor, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan stopped new farming pollution regulations just before they were about to go into effect. The regulations were set to reduce the amount of fertilizer that could be used on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore. The new rules would have meant that 228,000 fewer tons of chicken manure would have been applied to fields annually, reducing the runoff that ends up polluting the bay. Until action is taken to curtail such runoff in the bay, algae blooms and other forms of pollution will hinder clean up. In short, chicken poop will continue to be a problem.

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Image of a factory chicken farm from Shuttershock