Report: Energy facility could cause air problems

earth-newVirginia Commonwealth University researchers have found that a proposed alternative energy facility in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia might improve health risks related to water quality but contribute to air pollution.

The VCU Center on Human Needs, in partnership with the VCU Center for Environmental Studies, conducted a health impact assessment (HIA) of the proposed biomass facility, which would burn poultry litter as its fuel source. An HIA identifies the potential health impacts of a decision in a field that does not ordinarily consider health. It is meant to help community members and decision-makers identify unintended risks and find practical solutions.

Poultry farms in the Shenandoah Valley produce hundreds of thousands of tons of poultry litter annually, virtually all of which is used as fertilizer, a potential source of water pollution because of nutrient concentrations and other chemicals ingested by the birds. The proposed facility offers an alternative means of managing the litter as a fuel source for renewable electricity, but valley residents have expressed concern about the plant’s potential impact on air quality. The health impact assessment released today by the VCU researchers examines those impacts as well as the potential health implications from effects on truck traffic, poultry/agriculture employment and water quality.

According to the report, the proposed facility might contribute to improved water quality and may be a reasonable alternative management option for excess litter, but only if it was constructed in an area of the Shenandoah Valley that currently has low levels of air pollution. Because of the impacts on health and existing pollution levels in the valley, fine particulate matter air pollution is of particular concern.

“As recently as 2007, air quality in the valley was at a level now recognized to be unsafe by the EPA,” said Benjamin Evans, policy research manager at the VCU Center on Human Needs and member of the research team. “Since that time, air quality has improved but it still varies from a safe level to one that health experts argue is unhealthy.”

Because the energy company has not announced the exact location where it proposes to build the facility, the VCU Center for Environmental Studies used air modeling techniques to estimate impacts at a variety of locations.

“Due to local terrain and atmospheric conditions, the exact location of the facility actually ends up making a big difference in how air quality in the valley would be affected,” said William Shuart, an instructor with the VCU Center for Environmental Studies. “This kind of model analysis, along with smart engineering designs, could help rural communities protect both public health and natural resources.”

The report also suggested that effects on truck traffic and employment in the area could affect public health. The effects could be beneficial, but only with adequate attention to important details in early planning for the facility.

The 15-month analysis of this issue was completed by a VCU research team that included Evans; Greg Garman, Ph.D., director of VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies; and Steven Woolf, M.D., professor in the Department of Family Medicine and director of the VCU Center on Human Needs. Woolf is also co-director of the Community Engagement Core for the VCU Center for Clinical and Translational Research, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Others involved in the project included the University of Virginia Institute for Environmental Negotiation and Human Impact Partners, a non-profit based in Oakland, CA that specializes in HIA. The project was funded by a grant from the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Health Impact Project, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, or The Pew Charitable Trust.

The VCU researchers made a priority of engaging stakeholders in the community, including valley residents and representatives of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Chesapeake Bay Commission, the Virginia Cooperative Extension, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper and the Shenandoah Valley Network.

See the full health impact assessment at


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