Cheap waste disposal will cost us in the future

Two letters in the December 2011 Forum are absolutely correct to be seriously concerned about Bay pollution caused by the land application of poultry litter. ( See "Poultry power article needed to discuss facilities' impacts" and "Don't solve water woes by polluting the air.")

Both letters focus on incineration as an alternative to land application to use the energy in the waste and recover the phosphorus. But there are other potentially better technologies than incineration, including gasification, pyrolysis, fluidized bed oxidation and thermal depolymerization.

As is pointed out in the second letter, some of these technologies might be developed for on-farm use. Nothing will better stimulate waste-to-energy conversion technology, create jobs and reduce Bay pollution inexpensively than the guarantee of a feedstock because of a phased-in ban on the land application of all animal waste (poultry litter, sewage sludge and manure). A caveat is that the ban should not apply to small-scale, on-farm use. But if the waste is generated in sufficient quantity that it must be trucked on a public road, land application must be banned.

My commentary, "Bay cleanup a waste of time unless we seriously address manure" (December 2006), documented the pollution caused by the land application of animal waste.

In Virginia, about 550,000 tons of poultry litter are disposed on fields annually in the guise of "free fertilizer," causing 10 million pounds per year of nitrogen pollution. That is close to half the difference between Virginia's 2002 nitrogen discharge to Chesapeake Bay of 78 million pounds per year, and the reduction goal required by the EPA's 2025 draft total maximum daily load allocation of 54 million pounds per year.

Assuming the litter contains about 50 pounds of phosphorus per ton, about 27 million pounds per year of phosphorus are being disposed of. If the waste is applied on about 100,000 acres (out of 3.5 million being farmed), and crops use about 40 pounds of phosphorus per acre, only about 15 percent of the phosphorus is used by crops. The remaining 23 million pounds per year constitute potential pollution.

Twenty-three million pounds per year is astronomically high compared to Virginia's 2002 phosphorus discharge to the Chesapeake Bay of 9.8 million pounds per year and the EPA's 2025 Draft TMDL allocation for phosphorus of 5.4 million pounds per year.

A.N. Sharpley, Ph.D., editor of the book, "Agriculture and Phosphorus Management: the Chesapeake Bay," notes on page 66 that "much of the cropland in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is now considered 'optimum' or 'excessive' in phosphorus from an agricultural perspective and hence needs little additional phosphorus - from any source - to ensure that economically optimum crop yields are attained." As a geochemist, I can guarantee that the massive amount of excess phosphorus on agricultural soils is not inert, and will continue to slowly bleed into the Bay and cause pollution for decades.

Never forget that we have already mined about half of Earth's high-grade phosphorus ore. Yet we continue to squander a nutrient essential to feed Earth's growing population, causing massive water pollution at the same time, in favor of cheap waste disposal now.

Lynton S. Land
Ophelia, VA


Farmers not fierce, they just want to be heard

The "Bay Model is a perfectly useful tool" (December 2011) commentary is off-base.

I am a member of a Maryland county Watershed Implementation Plan Phase II team working toward achieving total maximum daily loads. I read Beth McGee's commentary on why the Bay model is perfectly useful tool for guiding the Bay cleanup and take issue with several points.

First, the "perfectly useful" term is off-base. The 2009 baseline pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus allocated to each county were revised upward twice since May 2011. Because of these revisions, the agriculture sector TMDLs are much greater than originally assigned.

It is thought by Maryland Department of Agriculture officials that many individual counties will not be able to meet their TMDLs because "the model does not work well on a watershed or county basis."

Also, the Delaware Department of Agriculture has tested nearly 3,000 poultry manure samples over the last five years and has data to prove there is 30 percent less nitrogen and phosphorus in the manure than the current figures used by the model. The EPA is said to be "evaluating" the data.

The commentary speaks of "fierce criticism" coming from national agriculture groups but only "concerns and/or confusion" from state and local government officials. When the ag sector points out major discrepancies like the above mentioned poultry manure content or the baseline figures revised upward two times in less than six months, it is labeled "fierce" and we are accused of "wanting to derail the Bay restoration efforts."

The truth is the information coming to the local teams from the state departments of environment via the EPA is confusing, wrong and forever changing.

The commentary is correct in that the model is so wrong and confusing that the Maryland Department of Environment has told the local committees to not focus on the pounds of nitrogen or phosphorous they will try to eliminate but instead to focus on practices or programs or local policy changes they will institute. This says, "don't worry about where or how big the target is, just tell us how you going to hit it."

No one in the ag community wants to or is attempting to "derail the Bay restoration efforts." We want a clean healthy Bay just as much as anyone else.

But we want to be heard and we want to be treated fairly. We want to be given credit for the thousands of best management practices - for which we have contributed millions of our own dollars to install - that have already reduced sediment loss by 55 percent, surface runoff of nitrogen by 41 percent and loss of phosphorus by 41 percent.

As a closing thought, think about this: What do local or state governments produce? Laws and regulations. What is the Bay cleanup going to cost them? Tax money. What does agriculture produce? Only the food that every person in this world eats. What is the Bay cleanup going to cost us? At the very least, much more money out of our pockets. At worst, loss of our ability to remain sustainable.

William Edwards
Hurlock, MD