Why there's a fight over plans to get natural gas from chicken waste

Why there's a fight over plans to get natural gas from chicken waste
Bioenergy Devco's biogas facility under construction in Jessup, Maryland. The company wants to put in a similar plant in Seaford, adapting a composting facility it's already running. Photo courtesy of Bioenergy Devco

When sinking your fork into a juicy piece of chicken breast or savoring a chicken wing, it’s easy to forget about what’s missing. Which is, of course, all the eggshells, feathers, guts and other bits, and of course poop, left over from producing that morsel of food.

Delmarva has a chicken industry worth billions of dollars. It also has an awful lot of chicken waste.

All that waste has to go somewhere. Much of it ends up on farm fields, whether that’s manure or an appetizing liquid slurry of chicken parts from processing plants.

Corn plants love it, but scientists have identified a lot of possible side effects from excess nutrients on farmland. If applied in excess, it can result in dead zones in streams and bays, for example, or cause health issues because of nitrates in groundwater. And the decomposing waste also produces greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, which contribute to climate change. (Especially methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas.)

Two companies have announced plans to build plants in Sussex County to use some of that chicken waste, if they get all the necessary government approvals. They want to produce methane and send it to a natural gas pipeline while turning the leftovers into fertilizer.

While some local environmental groups support the plans, the Washington, D.C., based Food and Water Watch is leading a vocal charge against them, backed by other organizations like the Sierra Club of Delaware and the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice.

At its heart, it's a dispute over the future of farming and the poultry industry in Delaware. In a two part series, we’ll take a closer look at why people support and oppose these methane operations and try to give readers the information they need to decide how they feel about these businesses coming to the community.

Solution or hazard? What to know about biogas plants proposed for southern Delaware
Local news in your inbox

The 2 biogas companies who want to come to Delaware

Two plants want to set up shop in the area, and they use slightly different processes toward the same goal: extracting biogas, which is getting methane by decomposing the parts of chicken you really don’t want to eat.  

It’s much the same as other natural gas, except that it doesn’t come from fossil fuel operations like fracking.

CleanBay Renewables has plans for a plant south of Georgetown that would harvest methane from chicken litter – the manure and sawdust mix from the floors of chicken houses. Bioenergy Devco wants to use waste like a liquified slurry from processing plants. They both want to do this by anaerobic digestion, which to put it very simply is letting tiny organisms that don’t like oxygen feast on the waste and break it down, with the byproduct being methane.

The basic process has been around a long time, but new technology is developing and is seeing increasing use on farms especially in Europe, where it’s seen as a way to combat greenhouse gas emissions.

The methane can be used for fuel or electricity production, and then the leftover nitrogen and phosphorus rich material is processed into compost to fertilize fields.

Proponents say this is a way to get clean natural gas, reduce greenhouse gases, and create a better fertilizer product that can be shipped off the Delmarva Peninsula to areas that aren’t so overloaded with nutrients.

Opponents say it’s a false solution: It props up the poultry industry, which they see as a bad thing, and gives it a PR talking point while still relying on carbon-based fuel and sending nitrogen and phosphorus to farm fields where it can end up polluting the water. They also say the biogas companies are presenting a misleading picture of their environmental friendliness.

Food and Water Watch recently sued the Sussex Planning and Zoning Commission, alleging it improperly allowed CleanBay Renewables' conditional use permit to remain in effect in Georgetown. The organization has also led efforts to reach out to residents in Seaford in the area of the Bioenergy Devco property, warning about the company’s plans and what it says the consequences could be for the local community.

Compost piles underway at Bioenergy Devco's existing plant in Seaford.

Debate over the poultry industry

When you boil down the arguments, one basic theme emerges: A dispute over the chicken industry on Delmarva and factory farming in general, its impact on the environment, and whether it should exist at all.

Greg Layton, the Delaware representative for Food and Water Watch, pointed to the water quality in the area.

There used to be swimming areas at the state parks like Trap Pond and Killens Pond, he said, but no longer. “There were a lot of local freshwater ponds where people could fish and swim. And now those places are closed down to swimming,” he said, laying the blame for this on the poultry industry.

That industry is a big employer in the area, he acknowledged. “It’s great people have jobs. And I eat chicken. But it really bothers me that we cannot use a lot of our waterways because of the runoff from this industry,” he said.

Another big area of focus for Food and Water Watch, he said, is ending carbon based fuels as soon as possible because of global warming.

“People talk about renewable natural gas as a sort of bridge fuel to get us from dirty coal to something better, like wind and solar,” he said. “And we feel that there’s no time to wait. We should be transitioning to something like wind and solar, or geothermal, right away.”

The question is whether we can feed a growing world population without farming at an industrial scale. Layton argued we can, albeit not dropping it overnight.

“If you look back in the history of Delmarva, 50 years ago, people weren’t starving,” Layton said, “and the factory farm model was not in full swing.”

Food and Water Watch backs the Farm System Reform Act sponsored by New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker, which would put a moratorium on the largest industrial-scale farms – "concentrated animal feeding operations," or CAFOs. It targets corporate farming and aims to protect family farmers from “predatory purchasing practices.”

Judith Stribling, a member of the environmental group Friends of the Nanticoke River and a former biology professor at Salisbury University, is not so sure about our ability to move away from intensive, concentrated farming. The Seaford plant would be close to the Nanticoke River, and her group has come out in favor of the project.

Stribling is no big fan of the chicken industry, but says it has made efforts to clean up its act. Some think, she said, that in a perfect world we should all have backyard chicken flocks and get food that’s locally sourced.

“I get it … but we have too many people to feed that way,” she said.  

“Given what we have, and given what our needs are, and given this massive (global) population that nobody seems to have a problem with … this is the best possible outcome.”

She also argued that if the waste isn’t used by the bioenergy plants, it will still end up on the land, decomposing and releasing carbon dioxide anyway. She noted that the waste slurry is already being injected directly into farm fields. (Although it is processed at a rendering plant first.)

CleanBay Renewables founder Thomas Spangler said his company's product is pathogen and heavy metal free, and they have focused a lot of time on engineering the fertilizer product so it is less prone to runoff than manure or synthetic fertilizer.

Food and Water Watch representatives worry that methane production using digesters will help entrench the poultry industry by making it seem more environmentally friendly and giving it an economic incentive to produce even more waste.

However, the chicken industry is already well established and is good for the area, said James Fisher of the Delmarva Chicken Association, which represents companies and growers.

“The chicken industry has been around on Delmarva for almost 100 years. The chicken industry is already woven into the fabric of Delmarva … it’s a great boon to our economy and our culture.”

“Our farmers want to be good neighbors. Our farmers want to live good lives themselves,” he said.

The idea that anaerobic digesters will incentivize waste misunderstands the economics of chicken farming, he said. “Coke is making Coke in glass bottles, they’re not doing that so they can collect the recycling … they want to sell the Coke.” It’s the same with the chicken community, he said: “We’re in business to put food on the table for people.”

The Delaware Center for the Inland Bays, an environmental nonprofit based near the beaches, also supported both CleanBay Renewables’ and Bioenergy Devco’s projects.

Chris Bason, executive director of the center, said waterways on Delmarva are terribly overloaded with nutrient pollution and these facilities can be part of the solution.

The poultry industry, he said, imports a lot of nutrients, and also puts a lot of nutrients on the soil to raise crops for feed. The result is that Delmarva is bringing in a lot more nutrients than it sends out, creating an imbalance.

These bioenergy plants, in addition to reducing greenhouse gases by replacing fossil fuels with renewable methane, will also ship a lot of their product out of the area and help restore some of that nutrient balance, he said.

In part, he had the same stance as Food and Water Watch: “We’ve got to take every possible action to stop using fossil fuels,” he said. Bason sees these facilities producing renewable methane as an important way to do that, while Food and Water Watch wants to stop using any carbon based fuels, fossil-derived or not.

We should note here that the Center for the Inland Bays has accepted money from the Perdue Foundation for its programming in the past. Bioenergy Devco was also one of 30 or so sponsors for the center’s annual Decked Out fundraiser, the Delaware Business Times reported.

Bason said the center tries to work with all the stakeholders involved. “In my experience, that’s how problems have gotten solved in the past,” he said.

In a followup email, he wrote, “This diversity and abundance of support is essential to our mission to protect and restore the Inland Bays and in no way alters our approach to being the honest broker of information about the Inland Bays.”

Bioenergy Devco, for its part, maintains it is not for or against the chicken industry, it’s just trying to bring a solution to disposing of the waste in a responsible way.  

Peter Ettinger, chief strategy officer for the company, said they are “waste agnostic.”

“You might consider us the people who clean up at the end of the parade,” he said. “All you want to do is make sure that it’s  been dealt with in a smart, environmentally sound manner … we believe that by providing an anaerobic digester here, that we provide (the industry) not only with a smart business solution, but we support the community in terms of clean water, in terms of clean air and better soils.”

There’s also the question of how safe anaerobic digesters themselves are, and what impact they have on the environment. The industry and Food and Water Watch certainly paint very different pictures, and we’ll take a deeper dive in the next article.

That one will be for paying subscribers. This kind of journalism requires a lot of time and effort, so we hope you’ll take the chance to find out more about this important issue for the community and support our work at the same time.

You can subscribe for $5 a month, and if you’re not satisfied, cancel anytime. Read more about why we use a paywall here.

More stories:

Environmental groups challenge Sussex decision on biogas permit
Environmental advocates are challenging Sussex County officials over a new business they say has not done enough work on its project to meet permit requirements. In 2018, Sussex County officials approved CleanBay Renewables’ plan to build a biogas facility in Georgetown, where the company plans to c…
A closer look: The dispute over land use in Sussex County
Local news in your inbox
To approve or deny development: What County Council can and can’t do
Local news in your inbox