By Megan Poinski

Maryland’s poultry industry is worth more than $600 million annually – but produces enough waste to pile up to the top of nearly two football stadiums and create about 40% of the phosphorus that pollutes the Chesapeake Bay, according to a report released Wednesday by Environment Maryland.

Much of the waste – manure from the birds and their bedding and feathers, a mixture called “chicken litter” – is often used by farmers as fertilizer for their fields. However, according to the study, chicken litter contains more phosphorus than crops usually need, and the excess often runs into the Chesapeake Bay. Phosphorus pollution leads to algae blooms forming in the water, creating large “dead zones” where animals cannot survive.

chickens“We really create so much waste each year, we have to come up with more ways to use it,” said Megan Cronin, the Chesapeake Bay program associate for Environment Maryland.

Cronin said that the pollution caused by the poultry industry – nearly 300 million broiler chickens in 2007, producing about 550,000 tons of chicken litter – is starting to command more attention. The federal government is creating strict regulations to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

Additionally the “P-index,” Maryland’s current method of measuring the amount of phosphorus that can be put on a field, still allows manure to be used as fertilizer on phosphorus-saturated fields. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has rejected the “P-index” because it finds that it can allow for excessive phosphorus runoff into the Bay.

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration has been working to update guidelines that regulate what farmers can place on their soil. In late October, the Maryland Agriculture Department submitted proposed changes to the state Nutrient Management Regulations Manual to the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review for approval. Cronin said the initial version of these changes was applauded by the environmental community.

If changes to the regulations are approved by the committee, they will be published in the Maryland Register for public comment and potential revision before they are implemented.

The Environment Maryland study recommends that new guidelines be developed to stop farmers from applying too much phosphorus-rich chicken litter to their soil. Cronin said this could include steps like prohibiting application while fields are frozen and less likely to absorb the nutrients, and requiring more of a wooded “buffer zone” be placed between fields and the waterways.

More poultry producers could also have their waste made into fertilizer pellets, which can more easily be moved away from the Chesapeake Bay and its already phosphorus-rich soil. For example, the Perdue AgriRecycle facility in Delaware pays to have poultry litter trucked in and made into pellets.

Last week, the Board of Public Works approved a 30-year lease for Maryland-based EcoCorp to build an anaerobic digester to turn chicken litter into electricity on land near Eastern Correctional Institute in Westover. James Harkins, director of Maryland Environmental Service, said that the plant will recycle up to 5,500 tons of poultry waste and supply about a quarter of the power for the prison. Harkins called the plan a “really grand pilot demonstration” to do something new with poultry waste.