WHO WOULD have thought a few years ago, when pfiesteria was afflicting fish and humans, and too much fertilizer running off farmland was suspected of causing it, that anyone would compete for the Eastern Shore's mountains of chicken manure?
Since then, driven by imminent government crackdowns on the spreading of manure, two promising ventures are under way that would use some 400,000 tons a year of poultry litter, about 40 percent of what is cleaned out of chicken houses across the Delmarva Peninsula.
The biggest is a 40-megawatt power plant that a British firm, Fibrowatt, proposes to build in Dorchester County, most likely in the vicinity of Vienna, near the Nanticoke River.
The company, which is calling its local venture FibroShore, has a nine-year record of operating manure-to-energy plants in Britain.
It has won the backing of everyone from local and state politicians to farmers and environmental groups that include the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The foundation has fought a proposed coal-fired power plant in the site.
The plant is superior to a traditional power plant on several counts, said Mike Hirshfield, the foundation's senior scientist. It uses a closed-cycle cooling system, "like a giant, air-cooled radiator," that turns water to steam and back to water. "So it doesn't need to draw [from] or discharge any water to the Nanticoke," Hirshfield said. The Nanticoke is a prime spawning area for rockfish, shad and herring.
Also, the 10 percent or so of the litter that is left as ash after being burned is mostly phosphorus, so it can be recycled as fertilizer or as an additive for poultry feed. Coal-fired plants produce huge quantities of ash that must be landfilled.
Even with the best air pollution controls, the litter-to-energy plant would produce some of the troublesome nitrogen oxides that come from any power plant, a major source of bay pollution.
"But compared to the quantities of nitrogen and phosphorus that would otherwise be spread on lands around the bay, this is going to be minuscule; it's a huge net gain," Hirshfield said.
FibroShore further proposes to pay farmers an as-yet-unspecified amount for their excess litter that, until now, they were fortunate to get someone to take for free.
It would be transported in sealed trucks that would not dump it until they were inside the power plant, where "negative air pressure" ensures that air - and odors - flow into the plant's boilers, never outside, according to Eric Jenkins, a Fibrowatt official.
Ironically, the most ardent opposition to the project has come, mostly behind the scenes, from Perdue Farms, whose poultry growers are a major source of the Shore's chicken manure.
Perdue has placed a large bet on another technology to meet impending restrictions on land-spreading of manure, building a $12 million plant near Seaford, Del., that will turn litter into pellets to be shipped out of the bay's watershed.
The Salisbury-based poultry giant says the plant, scheduled to open by next summer, will market the pellets to Midwestern farmers as a "fertilizer enhancement," rich in organic matter and plant nutrients. Perdue plans to use about 80,000 tons of litter a year and, other than offering free cleanout of farmers' chicken houses, has not committed to paying for the litter.
And therein may lie the rub. Rudolph C. Cane, a state delegate from the Lower Shore who backs the power plant, recalled a meeting where Jim Perdue, head of the company built by his father, Frank, tried to get Cane to back off.
"It was strictly business - the power plant's going to pay for manure, and Perdue wants it free," Cane said.
The other Perdue concern is that Fibrowatt says it must have Maryland's promise to purchase its electricity at a specified rate - in effect, a subsidy - to compete with coal and oil-fired power plants.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening has not responded yet to requests for a "power purchase agreement" with FibroShore, Cane says. But he notes that the governor's recent Green Power initiative commits the state to buy energy from renewable sources.
My own take is that Maryland and Delaware must do everything feasible to help both ventures succeed. As for subsidies, the government already subsidizes everything from oil and gas exploration to pumping sand onto ocean resort beaches, to mortgage deductions on primary and secondary homes.
Some make sense, some don't, and often it's a matter of degree. Subsidies that help farmers, clean up the environment and reduce dependence on fossil fuels seem a relative no-brainer.
It's not like there's a shortage of manure. In fact, without these and other large scale solutions soon, Delmarva farmers won't come close to meeting bay cleanup goals.
This country has developed a marvelous system for producing cheap, abundant food, which has turned out to be unacceptably polluting. It won't cost a lot more to do it cleanly if we spread the price among the culpable parties - everyone who eats.