Month: March 2015

Manure-to-Energy Plant on the Eastern Shore: A Solution to Phosphours Pollution in the Bay?

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The following is a piece from Neil Saunders:

On Monday, March 23rd, the Baltimore Sun published an article about a proposed plan to build a manure-to-energy plant on the Eastern Shore. The plan, teamed by New Hampshire-based AgEnergy USA and local poultry giant Perdue, includes a new $200 million plant to extract energy from chicken manure, which is used heavily as fertilizer on farmland on the Eastern Shore. The proposed plant is believed to provide an economic solution to some of the concerns surrounding the recently announced revised Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT) regulations.

The revised PMT regulations will require farmers to restrict the amount of animal manure that is used as fertilizer based on the levels of phosphorus found in their soils. Excessive phosphorus application can lead to greater amounts of the nutrient reaching nearby surface waters and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. Too much phosphorus in the Bay causes water pollution and leads to algae blooms and dead zones.

The PMT regulations are part of Maryland’s broader effort to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (Bay TMDL), a regulatory framework to coordinate Bay clean-up efforts across the entire watershed area. Unique to Maryland is the heavily concentrated poultry industry on the Eastern Shore. The PMT regulations have been designed to directly address the excessive levels of phosphorus that are reaching the Bay because of the poultry industry’s reliance on phosphorus-rich fertilizers, such as chicken manure.

Although most of the criticism surrounding the PMT regulations centers on the added costs imposed on farmers who would be required to purchase more expensive inorganic fertilizers, which include less phosphorus, another concern is what to do with the excess chicken manure. One solution, which is part of the framework of the PMT regulations, is to transport excess chicken manure from farmlands that are too rich in phosphorus to those farmlands that can use it. The problem with this is that there may not always be a viably marketable method to transport the chicken manure to where it is truly needed. Alternatively, a plant that can take that excess chicken manure and create alternative clean energy from it would not only make good use of the excess manure, but also remove the phosphorus in it from potentially reaching and polluting the Bay.

Implementation of the PMT regulations also plays an important role in completing this project. Recent advances in manure-to-energy technologies create an economic and environmentally friendly method to creating alternative clean energy. In order to invest in such technologies, however, there needs to be greater certainty at the administrative/legislative level to justify project funding. As James Potter, president of AgEnergy USA, says of his proposal in the Sun, “the timing is perfect.”
The proposal is still in the early stages, so there is still some skepticism as to whether the plan will come to fruition. Indeed, past projects similar to the present one have fallen through before. But given the progress made with the recent announcement of the revised PMT regulations and increased attention to the Bay clean-ups efforts around the state, there is reason to believe that this project will play an important role in restoring the Bay.

To access the Baltimore Sun article, visit:

Governor Hogan Moves Ahead with Phosphorus Regulations in Maryland

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After taking down former Governor Martin O’Malley’s proposed phosphorus management regulations this past January, current Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has moved ahead with revised regulations. While the most recent regulations will lead to less phosphorus runoff to the Chesapeake Bay, Hogan’s revisions push back implementation of phosphorus management on Maryland farms, and delay the much-needed cleanup of the Bay.

Hogan’s regulations will put into place the Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT), replacing the current Phosphorus Site Index for many of Maryland’s agricultural fields. The regulation will divide Maryland farmland into three tiers, based on the phosphorus fertility index value (P FIV) (phosphorus levels found in the soil). The highest tier (Tier C) will include farmlands with a P FIV of 450 or greater. These farms with the highest levels of phosphorus in the soil will be the first to begin implementation of the PMT. This means that farmers will have to measure and monitor soil phosphorus levels and apply amounts of manure fertilizer dependent on preexisting phosphorus levels. Farms with a P FIV of 400 or greater will likely have to stop using chicken manure (heavy in phosphorus) all together until the P FIV significantly decreases.
The second tier (Tier B) includes farms with an average P FIV of 300 and greater, but less than 450. The third tier (Tier A) includes farms with an average P FIV of 150 and greater, but less than 300.

The biggest difference between O’Malley’s proposed PMT, and the PMT regulations that Hogan has revised and reissued is timing. Hogan allows the farmers a little more leeway with implementation of the PMT. Farms with a P FIV of 400 or greater, while they must transition to the PMT sooner, are allowed the longest time to reach full implementation. These farms will face the greatest cuts, but will have the greatest amount of time to comply. In addition, the regulation will not begin to take effect until later than O’Malley’s original proposed PMT. Now, the PMT will not be fully implemented until 2022, across all three tiers.

It is good news that Hogan’s office has decided to implement the PMT, and was able to reach a compromise between Hogan’s own proposed regulations, and lawmakers who endorsed O’Malley’s former proposed regulations. However, full implementation of the PMT is still a long way off. Transition from the current Phosphorus Site Index for farms with the highest levels of phosphorus in their soils (tier C) does not begin until 2018; tiers B and A do not begin transition until 2019 and 2020, respectively. While Maryland is not the only state contributing to phosphorus pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, their chicken feeding operations, and the tons of chicken manure used as fertilizer on state croplands means that Maryland contributes a significant amount to phosphorus loads in the Chesapeake Bay. (10% of the phosphorus in the Bay is estimated to come from the Eastern Shore alone, where many of these chicken farming operations take place). I would argue that for the Bay, every little bit helps, and it’s never too soon to begin implementing regulations that will improve water quality in the estuary. Bay health is overall still pretty poor – the Chesapeake scored a D+ on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s most current report card- while populations of blue crabs, underwater grasses, and oysters are still at extremely low levels. Changes need to be made now to improve conditions in the Bay in the years to come.

To read the revised regulations for yourself, please visit the Maryland Department of Agriculture. The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post have also published stories in recent days, if you would like to read more about this issue.

Maryland Senate Hearings on Phosphorus Regulations

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The following is an account from my colleague, Neil Saunders, on the recent Maryland Senate hearings on phosphorus management, which he attended on February 24, in Annapolis. The hearing addressed the recent phosphorus management regulations proposed by former Governor Martin O’Malley, and reversed by newly inaugurated Governor Larry Hogan.

Listening to testimony provided in the Senate committee hearing on the proposed Phosphorus Management Tool bill, one theme that continued to be raised is that of unintended consequences. Proponents of the bill, Senator Pinsky who sponsored the bill and the environmental and scientific community, argued that not taking action necessary to address the problem of excessive phosphorus pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay watershed would have the unintended consequences of continuing to degrade the Bay’s poor water quality. Opponents of the bill, Secretary Bartenfelder and concerned partners of agriculture, countered that passage of the overly restrictive legislation would have the unintended consequences of mismanaging the state’s efforts to reduce nutrient pollution within the agricultural community. They do not oppose the PMT outright, but instead advocate for implementation of the PMT through flexible administrative regulations. Given the history of water quality policy around the Chesapeake Bay, it is clear that one side isn’t as sincere as they want to appear.

On February 24th, the Maryland Senate Committee on Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs heard testimony on a proposed bill to put into law the same PMT regulations that were stopped at the last minute by newly elected Governor Hogan. The bill, Senate Bill 257, was sponsored by Senator Pinsky to address the excessive phosphorus levels in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which has for decades contributed to the degradation of the Bay’s water quality. Specifically, the bill would update the method by which soil is measured for phosphorus and restrict the amount of animal manure, which is rich in the nutrient, that may be applied to farmlands where phosphorus levels are too high.

Under Maryland law, farmers must comply with a nutrient management plan to manage the application of nitrogen and phosphorus to their fields to prevent pollution to the Bay. The purpose of the nutrient management plan is to account for the nutrient needs of the crops as well as the risk of excessive nutrient runoff that can reach surface waters and ultimately pollute the Bay watershed. Currently, the Maryland Department of Agriculture relies on a model called the Phosphorus Site Index (PSI) to measure phosphorus levels and guides the department in making recommendations as to proper application rates. Senate Bill 257 would replace the PSI with a revised model for measuring phosphorus levels known as the Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT). The PMT, developed by the University of Maryland, more accurately identifies areas where there is high potential for phosphorus loss to nearby surface waters. The PSI, which was first developed in 2000 and revised in 2005, has been criticized by scientists to under-measure the risk of phosphorus loss, resulting in over-application of animal manure. The PMT would be implemented gradually over six years, with those fields with the highest phosphorus levels given the most time to be in compliance.

Senator Pinsky sponsored the bill after Governor Hogan recently blocked the PMT regulations from taking effect last month as part of outgoing Governor Martin O’Malley’s last moves before leaving office. Governor Hogan has since released his own proposed regulations immediately prior to the senate committee hearing; the debate is now whether the PMT should be adopted as regulations or passed as a piece of legislation. During testimony over the bill, Senator Pinsky acknowledged that adopting the PMT as an administrative regulation provides advantages in allowing flexibility to make minor changes in the future, but expressed serious concern that the Governor’s proposed regulations would ever be implemented and were not an attempt to delay implementation and save political face. Under Maryland law, the regulations proposed by the Governor cannot take effect until June 8th at the earliest. The previous regulations would have taken effect during the first week of February.

Senator Pinsky’s concerns do hold merit. For one, the environmental and scientific communities have advocated for years for new regulations to address excessive phosphorus caused by over application of animal manure. Several individuals from organizations such as the University of Maryland, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Chesapeake Bay Commission, U.S. Ecological Survey, and Environmental Integrity Project joined the Senator before the Senate committee to express support for the bill. The consensus among them was that this bill is long overdue and fundamental to addressing phosphorus pollution from agriculture. Despite huge efforts under the EPA TMDL program, parts of the Bay watershed are still impaired and others, including the Lower Eastern Shore where chicken farming is heavily concentrated, are worsening.

Opponents to the bill included newly-appointed MDA Secretary Bartenfelder and members of the agricultural community. These individuals also expressed their concern for phosphorus management, but strongly advocated for the committee to vote down the legislation and allow the MDA to implement the revised regulations proposed by Governor Hogan. The complexity of phosphorus management, they contend, warrants greater study. The reality is, however, that this issue has been debated and studied for years. According to Senator Pinsky, these PMT regulations have been proposed and pull back four times prior to proposal of the current bill. The agricultural community has been well aware that changes must be made in how animal manure is used as fertilizer but has long argued that it is too costly or unfair to farmers. To argue that now, after opposing similar PMT regulations for so long, that the proper course of action is to go with the more flexible regulation route, leaves too open the possibility that such regulations will never be imposed. When questioned on this possibility, the Secretary gave his word that they would. The real question is, what has this Hogan-appointed secretary done in his short time in office besides already pull back the same regulations once.

Another concern is that the Hogan regulations, while fundamentally similar to the previous PMT regulations, include changes that may have significant substantive consequences. First, the Hogan regulations would alter the schedule of implementation and provide an initial two-year period wherein the PSI model would remain in effect so that farmers may study the effects that the PMT model will have on their farmlands and prepare for whatever added costs they will face going forward. After the two-year period, a five-year phase in period will begin, with full PMT implementation by 2022, and not 2021 under the proposed bill. Second, the regulations would impose an immediate ban on phosphorus application to fields that have a P FIV (Phosphorus Fertility Index Value) of only over 500. While this is ultimately a good thing for reducing potential phosphorus loss, for reference the optimal FIV level is between 50 and 100. Finally, and potentially most significantly, is the inclusion of language that conditions restrictions on animal manure application to the ability to market the manure and provide adequate alternate uses. The agricultural community has long advocated that this problem is too costly and too detrimental to farmers to fix through additional regulations.

The reality is that phosphorus loss caused by excessive animal manure application is an issue that will continue to worsen if not addressed. The state of Maryland has delayed taking action through administrative regulation for too long. Passing legislation will finally provide the incentives to address this issue. Advances in technology exist to turn unused animal manure into alternative energies, but, as mentioned during the senate committee hearing, require certainty in legislation to justify investments in these technologies. Also, the bill provides adequate phased-in implementation to make the transition easier for those farmers most affected by these changes, and Senator Pinsky affirmed during the hearing that he is ready to make additions to the budget to support the additional costs of the bill.

Instead of arguing about unintended consequences, we should be arguing about the intended consequences of a cleaner Bay.