Activists fight small power plants

Chicken waste as fuel draws fire

Staff WriterMarch 4, 2009 

Opponents of burning chicken droppings as a renewable energy resource are lobbying state lawmakers in a bid to derail three proposed power plants that would use manure for fuel.

The opposition has grown to include the state NAACP, which says that building the proposed power plants in rural areas would expose blacks and poor people to arsenic and other pollutants.

The criticism presents another public-relations hurdle to Fibrowatt, the Pennsylvania company that has spent the past decade exploring the state for development. Fibrowatt promotes itself as a clean-energy company but has met opposition in several states where it has proposed the power plants.

"Everyone wants jobs, but you have to be against a job that on the back end may bring disease," said William Barber II, president of the state NAACP. "I guarantee you if they attempted to put it in a suburban community or a higher-income area, it would be an all-out fight against it."

Fibrowatt plans to build three plants in Montgomery, Surry and Sampson counties near chicken-processing operations for ready access to the organic fuel source. The plants could begin burning the waste as early as 2011.

Before it can begin construction of the $150 million facilities, Fibrowatt still needs to sign contracts to sell the electricity to Progress Energy and Duke Energy. Then Fibrowatt would apply for air-quality permits from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

"Obviously we can't build and operate this plant unless we demonstrate it's fully protective of the environment and public health," Fibrowatt spokesman Terry Walmsley said.

North Carolina ranks as one of the nation's biggest poultry-processing states. A 2007 state law provided a way to dispose of the waste by requiring Progress, Duke and other power companies to use poultry droppings as a fuel to generate electricity. North Carolina is the only state that requires burning poultry waste to produce electricity.

Fibrowatt currently operates a power plant in Minnesota and is pursuing projects in three other states. The proposed facilities are relatively small, with about 1/20th the power capacity of a major power plant.

Burning animal waste is largely untested. Fibrowatt last September failed an emissions test at its Minnesota plant. That state's Pollution Control Agency has initiated proceedings against the company for several violations. Walmsley said the violations are minor, relating to delays in emissions testing and reporting.

In this state, local government meetings have brought out scores of people to speak out against Fibrowatt. In October, the NAACP wrote to the Sampson County Board of Commissioners to oppose building the plants "near historically oppressed communities of African-Americans and other poor people."

A group calling itself Citizens for a Safe Environment has visited with more than a dozen state legislators in the past three weeks. On Tuesday, group members met with seven more and plan to lobby other lawmakers in coming weeks.

"They expressed an interest in having the law changed so that Fibrowatt would go away," said Rep. Russell Tucker, a Democrat who represents Duplin and Onslow counties.

Tucker noted that the renewable energy law the state passed in 2007 took months of delicate negotiations, and that tinkering with it now could cause "the whole thing to come crumbling down."

The law also requires using solar energy and swine waste, and includes financing provisions for nuclear power plants.

Fibrowatt has gone to great lengths to appease its critics here. It held six open house events in the state to answer residents' questions and promote the economic benefits of its facilities. The company organized four site tours of its Minnesota plant to demonstrate to local residents and business leaders that burning animal manure doesn't spread odors and disease.

"Power plants are not easy to site," Walmsley said. "Almost anything that has scale and is noticeable generates opposition."

Michael Regan, an air quality specialist at N.C. Environmental Defense Fund, said that Fibrowatt pollution would contribute to acid rain, ozone haze and arsenic, a toxin that can enter drinking water supplies and cause illness from long-term exposure.

A preliminary study by this state's Division of Air Quality shows that Fibrowatt's Minnesota plant emits more particulates, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides than a coal-burning power plant.

"There needs to be more stringent technology applied to these facilities," Regan said.

john.murawski@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8932

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