Vermont has a problem. The state is $1.2 billion short of the funding it will need to meet federal targets for reducing pollution in state waterways.
To solve that problem, Gov. Phil Scott suggested a creative solution last week in his budget address: Turning the pollutant into a commodity and selling it out of state.
The pollutant is phosphorus, a primary ingredient of fertilizer, which is widely used in farming.
Phosphorus is also, in a manner of speaking, a home-grown Vermont product. About 80 percent of the phosphorus applied to Vermont fields comes from cow manure. The remaining 20 percent of total phosphorus utilized for agricultural purposes comes from commercial fertilizers, according to Michael Wironen, a PhD candidate and research fellow at the University of Vermont Gund Institute for the Environment. Wironen has been working with the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to reduce pollution from farming.
Farm runoff is by far the largest source of phosphorus, scientists say. About a third of the chemical that has polluted Lake Champlain comes from Vermont dairy farms; by comparison, all the municipal wastewater treatment plants in Quebec, New York and Vermont combined contribute 7 percent. Excess phosphorus is blamed for large bacterial blooms, including one in Lake Erie recently that forced the city of Toledo to shut off its public water supply. Similar blooms of cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, have led to the closing of Lake Champlain beaches, and colored its once-clear waters a scummy opaque green.
Scott’s commoditization scheme is based on a new technology that removes phosphorus from manure. The theory is simple: If farmers were to sell byproducts from cow manure instead of applying it to their fields, they would pollute less, and water quality would improve.
But Wironen’s figures raise a number of questions, starting with this one: If Vermont farmers use the manure to fertilize crops, how much extra manure would they have to sell?
The Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets has not provided an answer, Wironen said. Nor did Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts, in an interview. “That’s a really technical question,” Tebbetts said.
Asked whether the agency believes Vermont farmers are over-fertilizing their fields, Tebbetts said, “That is a very technical question.” It depends on the farm, he said. Some Vermont farms need more manure than they produce. Others produce more than they need.
Pressed to answer whether he believed whether farmers could sell meaningful quantities of manure while still fertilizing their fields, Tebbetts said, “Through this innovative project we will find out the answer to that question.”
The state does not have current data comparing the amount of manure that is required to adequately fertilize fields and the amount that is actually spread on land in Vermont, Wironen said. It is possible that Vermont farmers are spreading more manure than the fields need, he said. “Some farms are looking for an end destination that’s not the field out back,” Wironen said.
What impact the Scott administration’s manure-to-money scheme would have on the urgent goal of meeting federal water quality standards in Vermont’s public waters is also yet to be determined, Tebbetts acknowledged. “I don’t think we have the answer to that yet,” he said.
This is not the first time the Scott administration has proposed an entrepreneurial solution to the state’s worsening water pollution problem. Julie Moore, head of the Agency of Natural Resources, made reference to marketing manure in the report, released late last year, of the Act 73 Working Group, which was created by the Legislature for the purpose of identifying sources of long-term funding to reduce water pollution. The working group, made up of members of the Scott administration and others, did not identify revenues for clean up as required under the legislative charge.
Moore told Vermont Public Radio in an interview last week that the Scott administration has explored technologies that could reclaim phosphorus from manure.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about at some considerable length for a number of months now,” Moore told Vermont Edition host Jane Lindholm, “and we think that … there are a number of very exciting technologies that are sort of on that edge of being able to cost-effectively extract phosphorus from manure and to create options to better manage it, and put it where it’s needed most, as opposed to simply applying it to the ground.
“We’re really excited about the opportunity to invite entrepreneurial solutions to this challenge, with the hope that they might simultaneously create some business opportunities,” Moore said.
But there is a problem with the administration’s approach. The cost of processing manure into a marketable product is likely to be greater than the potential benefit, given the ready availability and inexpensive cost of phosphorus now used for commercial fertilizers, Wironen said. That phosphorus comes from mining, which is much cheaper.
“People have found a way to remove phosphate and make it a marketable product,” Wironen said. “The key … is finding someone who needs it.
“In the long run, you’re going to have to find a market,” Wironen said. “That’s where you’re going to run into that competition question: Is it economically viable?”
The technology for phosphorus reclamation has been used primarily to treat sludge from municipal wastewater treatment plants. The city of Chicago recently spent $31 million on just such an upgrade to its sewage treatment system. The city hopes to raise $2 million a year by selling the phosphorus from its municipal wastewater.
Manure projects are less common. Moore pointed to the work of Trident Processes, a company specializing in “wastewater treatment, biosolids dewatering and nutrient recovery systems” — and specifically to a “nutrient recovery project” in northwest Indiana.
A case study of the project at Fair Oaks Dairy Farms, in Fair Oaks, Indiana, estimates the capital cost at $800,000, for the “smallest standardized system,” which would treat the manure from 500 cows. The estimated annual operating cost is $20,000 annually, with annual gross sales of the product estimated at $25,000.
Fair Oaks Dairy serves five farms, each with 3,500 cows, for a total of 17,500 cows. A typical 1,400 pound Holstein is capable of producing around 115 pounds of manure per day — about 21 tons per year, according to the figures provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Vermont dairy farms are by comparison much smaller operations. About half of the roughly 1,000 farms in the state milk fewer than 50 cows. About one-fifth of farms milk 200 or fewer. Only about 3 percent of Vermont dairy operations milk more than 700 cows.
Environmentalists criticized the governor’s proposed technological solution to the phosphorus problem as “gimmickry.”Lauren Hierl, of the Vermont League of Conservation Voters, said “to focus on building a market for our pollution instead of just cutting our pollution is wrong-headed.”
Rebecca Kelley, the communications director for Scott, is critical of Vermont environmentalists who, she wrote in an email, would have “no insight” into the sort of solution Scott has in mind.
The Scott administration is assembling a team of advisers, a mix of technical professionals and businesspeople, Moore said, who will meet next week with the goal of putting out a request for proposals that would be issued within months. Kelley declined to name any of the advisers.
As for how much Vermonters would be expected to invest in a manure-to-money scheme, Kelley said she did not know what sort of price tag the governor had in mind. Moore confirmed in her interview on Vermont Edition that $250,000 likely would be made available to fund a half a dozen projects.
Kelley said there is a line item in Scott’s budget this year from which funding could be drawn, adding that Scott’s administrators are “looking to leverage funds with federal and private sector partners.”