Ammonia Emissions from Poultry Industry More Harmful to Chesapeake Bay than Previously Thought

New Report Concludes that Air Pollution from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) is Twice as High as Estimated by EPA

Washington, D.C. – A new report from the Environmental Integrity Project concludes that ammonia emissions from the production of broiler chickens are likely twice as high as previously assumed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA numbers suggest that a typical poultry operation – with an average inventory of 110,000 broilers – emits 12 tons of ammonia per year, based on outdated data from the 1990s. In fact, more recent monitoring in the United States shows that emissions would be as high as 24 tons per year.

The result is that annual emissions of ammonia air pollution in the Chesapeake Bay states are roughly 40,000 tons a year, not the 20,000 tons that EPA assumed when designing the Bay cleanup effort, according to the Environmental Integrity Project’s new report, “Ammonia Emissions from Broiler Operations Higher than Previously Thought.”

EPA’s 2010 “pollution diet” for the Chesapeake Bay (the Total Maximum Daily Load, or Bay TMDL) estimates that ammonia air pollution is responsible for roughly 17 percent of the nitrogen feeding algae blooms and low-oxygen “dead zones” in the Bay. If EPA has been underestimating ammonia emissions from the chicken industry – as EIP’s report concludes – then this contribution is even higher.

A bill introduced by Senator Richard Madaleno in the Maryland Senate – which is scheduled for a hearing at 1 pm on Wednesday before the Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs committee – is a good first step toward tackling the problem, said Abel Russ, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project and author of the new report.

“The proposed Community Healthy Air Act would require the Maryland Department of the Environment to conduct air monitoring near poultry houses to obtain better data on ammonia air pollution,” said Russ. “With better information we can find effective ways to control this pollution and clean up the Bay.”

Chickens raised in industrial-scale Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, are a major part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s farm economy. In 2016, poultry operations in the Bay states raised over one billion broilers (chickens raised for meat, not egg production). Over time, the industry has been producing larger and larger birds. Since 2002, the total weight of broilers produced in the watershed has increased by 25 percent, to 6.6 billion pounds in 2016, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.

The manure inside chicken houses emits large quantities of ammonia and other pollutants. For many years, EPA has been estimating ammonia emissions using data from European broiler operations. In 2005, EPA initiated a study of air pollution from U.S. factory farm operations, and was supposed to finish that research by 2009. The agency has still not completed the work, but multiple studies have confirmed that U.S. broiler operations emit much more ammonia than European operations. This is because the American poultry industry produces larger birds, cleans out barns less often, and raises birds in a warmer climate.

The EIP report examined ammonia monitoring data from U.S. broiler operations conducted by academic researchers and government scientists and found that the average emissions per bird were roughly twice as high as the amount EPA has historically assumed.

EPA has long assumed that broilers emit 0.27 grams of ammonia per bird per day, which would multiply out to about 20,000 tons of ammonia per year from all of the broiler operations in the Chesapeake Bay region. EIP’s analysis – using the more up-to-date U.S. numbers – concludes that emissions are more like 0.54 grams of ammonia per bird per day, totaling over 40,000 tons per year in the Bay region. (This analysis does not include turkey or egg production facilities.)

A typical broiler operation on the Delmarva Peninsula will have an average inventory of 110,000 chickens at any one time and produce over 500,000 each year. Using the U.S. monitoring data, EIP estimates that this facility would emit between 19 and 24 tons of ammonia each year – twice the approximately 12 tons that EPA would estimate using the European numbers.

Once ammonia is emitted into the air, much of it quickly settles onto the land or water nearby. “This is a big problem that does not always get the attention it deserves,” said EIP’s Abel Russ. “We’re making progress on many sources of nitrogen in the Bay, but ammonia emissions are probably increasing in lockstep with broiler production. This means that the amount of nitrogen air pollution escaping from poultry houses could really be the difference between a restored Chesapeake Bay and waters that continue to be impaired.”

On Wednesday, the Maryland Senate is scheduled to hold a hearing on Senate Bill 133, the “Community Healthy Air Act.” This bill would, among other things, require the Maryland Department of the Environment to measure and quantify ammonia emissions from large animal feeding operations.

A companion house bill is HB0026, sponsored by Delegates Robbyn Lewis and Shane Robinson. A hearing on this legislation is scheduled for 1 pm on February 7 before the House Environment and Transportation committee.

Air monitoring data generated pursuant to the law would be a critical element in achieving Bay cleanup targets because they would help show how much of the Eastern Shore’s nitrogen pollution can be attributed to ammonia escaping from poultry operations. If chicken houses represent a major source of nitrogen, as the EIP report suggests, then meeting the goals of the Bay TMDL will require improved strategies or pollution control technologies to reduce these ammonia emissions.

Read the full report, “Ammonia Emissions from Broiler Operations Higher than Previously Thought.”

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 15-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, based in Washington D.C., dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.