Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) conducted an HIA to inform decisions regarding a proposed biomass power plant that would burn poultry litter in Virginia.
The Shenandoah Valley in northwestern Virginia is among the nation’s largest producers of poultry. The litter produced by poultry farms is of particular concern because, when applied as fertilizer, the runoff can contribute to nutrient pollution of the environmentally vulnerable Chesapeake Bay watershed.
One alternative practice for managing excess nutrients is to burn the litter as a means of producing energy. At the time this project began, an energy company, Fibrowatt LLC, was developing a proposal to build such a facility in the Valley. Whether this solution is indeed better for the environment or public health is uncertain. The company did not publicly disclose details of the proposed Virginia facility (including the intended location), and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) deferred making an air permit decision until a site was proposed. Zoning authority for this type of facility is held by the boards of supervisors in the four counties where the site might be located: Augusta, Page, Rockingham, and Shenandoah Counties. The decision taken by these counties could affect social, economic, and environmental factors that impact health.
In preliminary community meetings, residents and environmental groups expressed concerns about effects on public health and the area economy. Nevertheless, the facility was mentioned in the state’s plan to meet new EPA standards for water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and state environmental officials began evaluating the environmental impacts. The competing stakeholder interests and the relative inattention to health outcomes made this an ideal topic for a health impact assessment.