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Chicken waste conversion project may ease ground water contamination

Delaware Department of Agriculture

A different approach to addressing ongoing concerns about ground water contamination by waste produced from poultry plants is coming to the First State.

A Maryland-based company has developed technology to tackle the issue – and is bringing it to Delaware.

Contributor Jon Hurdle offers a look at this technology.

Has Delaware found a solution to its long-running problem of ground water contamination from the waste produced by poultry plants?

A new plan to convert chicken waste from a Delaware processing plant into usable compost and natural gas promises to remove nutrient-laden manure from the waste stream while capturing methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and converting it to natural gas for sale to local utilities.

Bioenergy DevCo, (BDC), a Maryland-based company that has developed many similar plants in Europe, said in November it will buy a soil-composting plant near Seaford from Perdue Farms, and has entered a 20-year agreement with Perdue to process organic material from the Delaware facility, plus two others in Maryland.

BDC says it will spend up to $60 million to use a process called anaerobic digestion to convert chicken manure and other waste products into organic material that can be used to improve soil quality, and won’t pollute the ground water that has been affected by chicken waste in some Delaware communities.

At the same time, the process will generate enough natural gas to fuel 5,000 homes, said Shawn Kreloff, BDC’s chief executive.

"Our mission is to make sure anaerobic digestion becomes the de facto solution for managing organic material in the United States." - Bioenergy DevCo CEO Shawn Kreloff

“The waste material traditionally was applied to farmers’ land and it would get washed into the watershed during rainstorms,” Kreloff said in an interview. “Chicken litter, if it was applied too much, could over-saturate that land with minerals and nutrients.”

In the new operation, the anaerobic digestion will remove the waste material and process it into commercial quantities of organic compost while capturing methane for the natural gas market, benefiting air, water and soil, Kreloff said. He described the process as “like a cow’s stomach on an industrial scale”, and said that the compost that emerges after just 22 days is odorless.

It’s the company’s first application of the technology for poultry waste in its U.S. market, and the first in the country by any company to build the technology on a larger scale than at the individual properties where it has been used so far, said Nick Horowitz, a spokesman for BDC. The company is currently operating an anaerobic digestion plant for food waste in Maryland.

Kreloff said the company sees the agreement with Perdue as a “showcase” for the technology because of the prominence of Delaware as a poultry-producing state. The company sees the project as the start of an effort to establish itself in the U.S. market after many years of operating mainly in Europe.

“Our mission is to make sure anaerobic digestion becomes the de facto solution for managing organic material in the United States,” he said. “This promotes sustainable agriculture and puts the nutrients back into the soil and the microbes.”

Kreloff said anaerobic digestion has “nothing to do” with incineration or landfilling. “We are a recycling facility for organic material,” he said.

Under the agreement, BDC will take over composting at Perdue’s AgriRecycle plant at Seaford, which is permitted by the state to compost 30,000 tons a year of poultry processing and hatchery by-products and poultry litter from Delmarva farms.

That’s only a fraction of the total amount of poultry waste produced by Delaware farms but it’s just the start, Kreloff said. Asked whether the 30,000 tons was just a drop in the bucket, he said: “It is, and that’s why we would like to increase the volume.”

Jerry Kauffman, director of the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Center, said the agreement has the potential to address the longstanding problem of water contamination from an industry that is one of Delaware’s most economically important.

“The challenge has always been what to do about the poultry manure, given that the waters in Sussex County flow west toward the Chesapeake or east to the Atlantic Ocean and the Inland Bays,” he said. “Any proposal like this that could cleanly remove the waste is a good concept.“

"Any proposal like this that could cleanly remove the waste is a good concept."- Jerry Kauffman, director of UD's Water Resources Center

Kauffman said anaerobic digestion is well known in environmental engineering, particularly in waste-water treatment. He said the large-scale treatment of poultry waste offers the prospect that ground water will get relief from the contamination, particularly in Sussex County with its concentration of poultry plants.

“We have had high nitrogen showing up in the shallow ground water aquifer in Sussex County,” he said. “It’s either coming from fertilizer or leaking septic systems.”

Affected communities include Millsboro where two lawsuits were filed in 2018 by about 750 plaintiffs who said a nearby poultry producer, Mountaire Farms, had contaminated ground water by spreading poultry waste containing high levels of nitrates and other pollutants on about 900 acres of fields.

The company, which slaughters and processes some 2 million chickens a week, generates waste water and sludge containing feathers, blood, carcass parts, fecal matter and other contaminants, one of the lawsuits said.

The company said at the time that its wastewater treatment plant had malfunctioned, but denied that it was responsible for ground water contamination, which it said originated before it bought the plant in 2000.

In 2017, Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control said Mountaire violated regulations by spraying contaminated material on farm fields.

In October this year, the company entered mediation with the plaintiffs, prompting speculation that both sides are trying to settle the case.

Randy Day, chief executive of Perdue Farms, said the agreement will save money and improve environmental quality.

“With Bioenergy, we have found a partner that enables us to be more sustainable, create cost savings, and help produce renewable energy while continuing to address soil health and nutrient management in the environmentally sensitive Chesapeake Bay watershed,” Day said in a statement.

For his part, Kreloff said he hopes to have state permits transferred from Perdue in the next 60-90 days, and then to have new permits issued during 2020.

DNREC said it will work with BDC for any new permits for the Seaford plant, and welcomes the prospect of environmental improvements as a result of the new technology.

“The department is of course supportive of proven innovative technology that converts waste materials into useful products for bettering our environment,” it said in a statement.


Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.
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