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New Poultry Waste Management Rules Fall Short, Researchers Say

Chickens are big business in Virginia, with broilers representing a nearly $1 billion dollar commodity in the state. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

On Wednesday, the Virginia Water Control Board decided to track how poultry waste is distributed, including as fertilizer, around the state. But Chesapeake Bay researchers say the new rules leave out important information on chemicals added to the litter.

In 2019, only nine states produced more livestock chickens than Virginia. All those birds produce quite a bit of waste, which releases ammonia - that’s why Bay researchers are interested.

Ammonia is toxic to Bay life like oysters. More importantly, it contains nitrogen, a common agricultural byproduct that’s known to lower oxygen levels in the Bay -- leading to the yearly occurrence of a “ dead zone.”

Joe Wood, a senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says poultry manure is “definitely a substantial source - and it’s remarkable when you consider we’re not doing anything about it.”

He says recent research from the Chesapeake Bay Program shows that agriculture as a whole releases more nitrogen into the bay than coal-fired power plants or vehicles. That’s largely due to regulations in those sectors.

Farmers already add ‘amendments’ to poultry waste to reduce the amount of ammonia released, as it’s toxic to livestock. These additives essentially lock that ammonia in, Wood says. Some also reduce runoff in manure used as fertilizer.

“This isn’t historically done for environmental benefits, but it does have significant environmental benefits,” Wood said.

But, he continues, there’s just not enough information to know exactly how those additives reduce Bay pollution - and therefore, how to best use them.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation urged the Water Control Board to require farmers to report their use of amendments, but the board did not include such a requirement.

They did, however, add a requirement to track where manure is moved and how it’s applied as fertilizer. Wood says that’s a step in the right direction.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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