Where a Maryland startup sees a green upgrade — a biofuel facility near the Nanticoke River that could prevent up to 220,000 tons per year of nutrient-laden chicken industry byproducts from fouling waterways — many environmentalists see only red.
Bioenergy DevCo is close to securing the final state and local approvals necessary to construct a $50 million anaerobic digester in rural southwest Delaware.
Like a “cow’s stomach on an industrial scale,” as Bioenergy’s chief development officer Peter Ettinger puts it, an anaerobic digestion system breaks down the industry’s waste into biogas, the organically based cousin of fossil fuel-derived natural gas.
The company touts the technology as a solution to the chicken industry’s nutrient pollution problem.
But the proposal has drawn strong pushback from environmentalists, who say it will only give more incentive for “factory farms” to continue expanding in the region. Others say the potential for explosions or gas leaks at the plant poses an unacceptable risk to people living nearby.
“It’s a moneymaking scheme as opposed to a pollution-control scheme,” said Tyler Lobdell, an attorney with the environmental group Food and Water Watch.
Bioenergy struck a 20-year deal with agribusiness giant Perdue in 2019 to take over its composting operation near the small town of Blades. The facility is the destination for about 30,000 tons per year of chicken litter, the manure-laden waste scraped from the bottom of chicken houses. After composting, the nutrient-rich product heads back to farms as a fertilizer.
Now, Bioenergy wants to add to the 220-acre campus an anaerobic digester, which it says will complement the ongoing composting.
Bioenergy officials say the digester will be fed two types of waste: chicken litter and the sludge leftover from the chicken-slaughtering process. The material, called DAF (from the “dissolved air flotation” system that produces it), is typically stored in giant tanks scattered across the region until it can be sprayed onto cropland.
Farmers employ DAF to improve the health of their soils. There is widespread concern, however, that not all of the DAF fertilizer will stay on the fields, but will be carried by stormwater into nearby ditches and streams, triggering ecosystem-ravaging algae blooms as far as the Chesapeake Bay.
The digester is a response to one of the state-federal Bay cleanup program’s pointiest dilemmas: what to do with glut of nutrients generated by Delmarva’s poultry industry.
The restoration effort faces a 2025 deadline to finish its work, but the poultry industry keeps expanding. In 2019, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia farmers along the peninsula raised and slaughtered 4.3 billion pounds of chickens, a nearly 35% increase since 1999, according to the Delmarva Chicken Association, the industry’s leading trade group in the region.
The result: Delmarva has more DAF and poultry litter than its farm fields can absorb.
With the digester, bacteria inside fully enclosed tanks will heat the DAF to about 125 degrees. The process generates biogas, but no pollution escapes into the air, Ettinger said. The facility requires a state air permit for other plant components, including a natural gas-fired boiler.
“You’ll smell the chicken house before you smell us,” he said, referring to the property’s adjacent neighbor. The company plans to have the biogas trucked about a mile away to be injected into a pipeline network owned by Dover-based Chesapeake Utilities.
The digester also will produce 31,000 tons per year of a slurry known as digestate. Bioenergy plans to steer the material into the compost facility.
The facility has drawn support from Michael Scuse, head of the Delaware Department of Agriculture and a former Obama administration official. Top state Republican leaders also have rallied behind Bioenergy’s cause.
To move forward, though, the company needs a zoning change from the Sussex County Council. Barring a surprising development, that seems likely. The county’s Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approving the change in March.
“I think it’s a real service to the community,” said Keller Hopkins, a planning commission member and owner of a local construction business.
Most of the public speakers, though, opposed the proposal.
Several appeared blindsided by Ettinger’s statement early in the hearing that the facility would be accepting DAF. The “proposed use” of the facility, according to the county’s meeting materials, was listed as “processing and handling of poultry litter,” making no mention of DAF.
“It leaves me wondering what this project is actually about because it seems to be ever-shifting,” Lobdell told the board.
Maria Payan, a Sussex resident and regional representative with the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, said the county should deny the proposal because the surrounding community is already “overburdened” with pollution.
Last year, the EPA declared the town of Blades a Superfund site because its drinking water supply has been contaminated by forever chemicals known as PFAS, possibly from a local metal electroplating company.
Because people of color account for more than 40% of the residents within the digester’s census block, the project also raises environmental justice concerns, Payan said. If there is a leak or an explosion, they will be the first to be harmed, she added.
During a web forum hosted by the project’s opponents earlier in February, Sacoby Wilson, an environmental health scientist at the University of Maryland, charged that the digester is a poor trade-off for the community.
“Yes, we want to make sure people have jobs,” Wilson said, “but not jobs that kill them and kill the communities they live in.”
The Sussex County Council took more than three hours of testimony during a contentious 3 ½ -hour hearing March 16. The board agreed to conduct a final vote at an unspecified later date. This time, more environmental partisans defended the project, including those with the Friends of the Nanticoke River and the Wicomico Environmental Trust.
“All of us are fascinated by what’s going on up here and we are all paying attention,” said Gina Bloodworth, a representative of the Wicomico group and an environmental studies and geography professor at Salisbury University. “[We] could not be more delighted to see this kind of innovative technology being used.”
Staff writer Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this story.