for waste-management research
An unusual agreement between North Carolina Attorney General Mike Easley and Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest hog producer, has solved one problem for College of Agriculture and Life Sciences waste-management researchers. The agreement, under which Smithfield is making $15 million available for waste-management research, provides the College with sorely needed resources.
Now, however, there is another challenge. It’s a clock, and it’s ticking.
The agreement, announced in late July, requires Smithfield to “commit $15 million for the development of environmentally superior technologies for the management of swine waste and to facilitate the development, testing and evaluation of potential technologies on company-owned farms.”
The technologies to be developed and evaluated are seen as possible alternatives to the lagoon and sprayfield system now used on virtually every North Carolina swine farm to treat waste. Citing environmental concerns, Gov. Jim Hunt has proposed elimination of lagoons within 10 years.
The Easley-Smithfield agreement stipulates that within two years a report will be produced detailing efforts to develop and evaluate as many as 11 different “environmentally superior” waste-management technologies. It seems likely the report will play a major role in any efforts to require North Carolina swine growers to convert from the lagoon-sprayfield system to other waste-management technologies.
Meeting that two-year deadline will be a challenge, says Dr. Mike Williams, director of the College’s Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center. Williams should know, for the agreement also mentions him — prominently.
According to the agreement, Williams “will be responsible for the identification and development of environmentally superior technologies; will be the final authority in the selection, installation, operation and evaluation of technology alternatives; and will make all technology determinations.”
In other words, the task of implementing the agreement has fallen squarely on Williams’ shoulders.
The agreement comes at a time when one element of College waste management research was in danger of stalling for lack of resources. Over much of the last decade, College researchers have experimented in laboratories and on a pilot scale with a number of potential alternatives to the lagoon-sprayfield system. Five of these potential alternative technologies have been identified as promising.
The next step is to evaluate the five on farms at full scale. Full-scale evaluations are necessary to determine whether the technologies will continue to perform as they have in the laboratory and at pilot scale. But it’s expensive to build full-scale systems and can be difficult to find locations to install the systems.
Only one of the five promising technologies, an in-ground digester, is being evaluated at full-scale, although a second, a constructed wetland system, is being installed on an Onslow County farm. The $15 million from the agreement will provide ample funding to move ahead with full-scale evaluations of the three remaining technologies, while the requirement that Smithfield provide company-owned farms on which to locate the technologies solves that problem.
But there’s still that clock.
Williams was working in August to meet two other requirements of the agreement. While the agreement gives Williams the final authority to make virtually all decisions, he must also appoint peer review and economics panels. The peer review panel is to “participate in the process and advise on the selection, installation, operation and evaluation of environmentally superior technologies,” according to the agreement. The economics panel is to provide advice on one of the more important elements of evaluating alternative technologies, determining whether they are economically feasible.
Williams said he expects both panels to meet frequently and to be actively involved in the evaluation process. One of the peer review panel’s first tasks will be to decide whether the three remaining promising technologies — an upflow biofiltration system, a sequencing batch reactor and a high-temperature anaerobic digester — are, indeed, the best alternatives to evaluate immediately.
Then the panel and Williams will have their hands full selecting five or six more technologies for evaluation.
It will all take time, and the clock’s ticking.