Why waste animal waste? A green alternative to pig farm lagoons

Dianne Anderson
By Dianne Anderson
For business

It’s time for a grown-up conversation on biogas; namely, who’s going to clean up after the animals?

Before the hurricanes made landfall, attorneys argued that spraying more than 2.2 million tons of hog wastewater daily into residential areas were safe. That argument was a multi-million dollar loser, and now raises more health concerns for those who once thought they were protected.

Years of dealing with pig sludge on their properties, staph infections and unbearable stench, have spawned several lawsuits from a poor African American community in North Carolina, but it’s not just their problem anymore.

In North Carolina alone, the Environmental Working Group counts about 10 billion gallons of wet and dry animal waste in waste pits from pig and poultry, enough to fill about 15,000 Olympic size swimming pools each year. They also reported about 170 pits are located within the state’s 100-year floodplain, and 136 pits are within a half mile of a public water well.

Alex Formuzis, spokesperson for the Environmental Working Group, said their interactive CAFO maps of animal waste storage sites are getting more attention lately due to recent storms, especially in North Carolina.

The hog industry is huge, and the map shows the proximity of the farms and manure pits, called lagoons, to people’s homes.

When farmers drain the lagoons, the spray from the manure flies everywhere, into adjacent fields and residential properties.

“In many cases, the fecal matter is caked outside their homes, inside their homes, on their counters,” Formuzis said. “In some cases, they can’t go outside. They’re prisoners in their own homes. It’s an environmental issue, and it’s an environmental justice issue.”

A better alternative

Part of the debate is why so much manure needlessly goes to waste in the first place.

The process of recycling farm poop into biogas is less expensive than the astronomical lawsuits to hit hog farmers recently.

For a relatively small investment, anaerobic digestion could save animal farmers money, while saving the health of the community.

Dr. Birgitte Ahring, PhD, who leads the BioScience and Technology Group Bioproduct Sciences and Engineering Laboratory at Washington State University, said that although the biofuel process is going strong in Denmark and Germany, it’s vastly underused in America.

“It seems like nothing is happening here, I don’t think a lot of people understand this,” Ahring said.

On the heels of the recent passage of SB100, Ahring feels California is in a good position to move ahead with clean energy technology such as biofuel. However, apart from mandates or regulations, she said farmers at the national level haven’t been so eager to invest.

“By having the carbon tax, you begin to have an incentive,” Ahring said. “That is what we haven’t seen [nationally]. You can give an incentive, for instance, with the laws.”

At last count, the EPA listed California, Wisconsin and New York as the three states with the most anaerobic digestion facilities, known as digesters.

Following Denmark’s example

In Denmark, the production of biogas is increasing rapidly, expected to more than triple over an eight-year period from 2012 to 2020.  The majority of biogas plants are manure-based plants located near farms, according to the Danish Energy Agency.

Biogas is playing a crucial role in helping Denmark achieve its goal of being fossil fuel free by 2050.

Ahring, who researches and invents new biomass technology, tries to get the word out in the U.S. about the latest advances in digester biofuels.

“We have a tremendous greenhouse gas problem coming, especially for CAFO’s, pollutants that are going to be there for years, problems that our next generation would have to handle,” she said. “The technology is there, we have to get it in front of the people.”

Dianne Anderson covers education, health, and city government stories with an eye on legislative impacts to diverse communities. She has received awards from the American Cancer Society – Inland Empire, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Over the years, she has reported for the Long Beach Leader and the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and been a contributor to the Pasadena Weekly.