By Hugh McLaughlin, PhD, PE, Member of the NESFI Board

The New England Small Farm Institute (NESFI) is a non-profit organization located on state property in Belchertown, MA. Working in collaboration with the Pioneer Valley Biochar Initiative (PVBI), NESFI conducted a small, randomized split-block field trial in the summer of 2008 utilizing  biochar as a soil amendment for growing tomatoes. Although the results were mixed, the group was intrigued enough by the promise of biochar that they planned a subsequent larger trial for 2009.

In spring 2009, NESFI/PVBI approached the Joseph Gnazzo Company, Inc., successor to the now defunct Connecticut Charcoal Company (CCC), seeking permission to access a 90 cubic yard pile of weathered, lump charcoal fines stored on their Union, CT site for use in a biochar field trial. Anticipating that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP)/Solid Waste branch would be concerned with the potential land application of an undocumented “soil amendment”, the team interviewed Mr. Paul Rizner, former collier for the CCC, to determine and document the feedstock utilized for production of the char. Rizner provided a notarized affidavit that the charcoal had been produced solely from clean hardwood slabs. The NESFI/PVBI team additionally arranged for laboratory analysis of the char by Con-Test Analytical Laboratory, which found the char to be free from toxins and appropriate for soil application.

Concurrent with setting up the field trials and testing the biochar, NESFI initiated a dialogue with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) to determine the regulatory requirements applicable to the use and production of biochar in Massachusetts. Based on the results of the lab analysis of the biochar, MassDEP provided a formal letter of determination, “allow[ing] NESFI to conduct a demonstration activity involving the ninety (90) yards of biochar that remain from the CCC production activities, subject to conditions…” that included submittal of an evaluation plan and reports.

Designed with reference to the IBI “Guide to Conducting Biochar Trials,” a 1.5-acre, three-year field trail was established on the NESFI leasehold.  Char was banded through planters when seeds were set with added fertility provided by compost.

As the field trials were underway, the NESFI/PVBI partners began exploration of farm-scale char production technology. NESFI was planning to host a biochar technology field day (in conjunction with the UMass/Amherst November 2009 Biochar Symposium) and the process of setting up this event launched the team’s first dialogue with MassDEP/Air Quality. NESFI had an interest in demonstrating a variety of char-producing stoves and retorts and approached local fire department staff for a burn permit. It was determined that “air emissions approval” for the field day demonstration would be the responsibility of the MassDEP regional office. Ultimately, a one-day only demonstration permit, covering field day activity, was granted for the 2009 event, and a similar permit was subsequently applied for and granted for a five-day Combined Heat and Biochar (CHAB) Camp hosted at the NESFI site in 2010. In both instances, it was agreed that DEP staff would be present for technology operation review during the events.

Throughout the entire process, MassDEP was candid about its lack of experience with biochar and pyrolysis. A May 2010 communication from MassDEP to NESFI noted that, “even though the concept of Biochar may not be new, it is new to MassDEP and as such, MassDEP is currently in the process of evaluating the concept of Biochar and the applicability of regulations at hand. In addition, and among other things, given the varied apparatuses which are being used to make Biochar, the types of fuel that may be used, the types of char feedstock that can and may be used, and the location where it will be [produced and] used, are presenting some challenges and concerns for MassDEP to overcome at this time

  • [Regarding land application,] …MassDEP believes that Biochar made from clean materials such as virgin wood and crops does not need MassDEP approval to apply to the land.  Waste materials turned into Biochar however, will need a Beneficial Use Determination in order for the charred material to be land applied.
  • [Regarding air quality,] …under current regulations, fuel utilization units that are above certain thresholds… and any air emission unit with potential pollutant emissions above certain thresholds, are required to obtain a permit from MassDEP.”

When the possibility of USDA/Rural Development funding for fabrication of a farm-scale retort (an Adam-Retort fabricated by New England Biochar, LLC) presented itself, NESFI requested that MassDEP provide formal guidance on pyrolysis system requirements. The result was the “MassDEP Interim Requirements for the Installation and Operation of Biochar/Charcoal Production Units,” a document approved and signed by Assistant Commissioner James Coleman on 11/30/2010. Essentially an expanded articulation of the May 2010 communication, the document specifies thresholds for energy input (expressed in MMBtu/hour) and air contaminant emissions – sufficient to enable design and fabrication of a farm-scale retort (Adam-Retort) that can meet MassDEP regulatory concerns.

Throughout the process, it has become apparent that communication between MassDEP and the NESFI/PVBI has proven pivotal in achieving an interim regulatory framework. The value of this achievement is that all parties now posses a clear understanding of what is allowed, what is not allowed, and which regulations apply to a variety of scales of biochar production equipment. Notably, the November 2010 document issued by MassDEP contains specific references for determining the thresholds for compliance on the air emission limitations without resorting to cost-prohibitive stack testing of individual devices.

Based on the experiences of the group in New England, it is recommended that if you are operating a pyrolysis unit anywhere in the United States and have questions regarding your area’s environmental requirements in regard to biochar production/utilization, you should contact the local Department of Environmental Protection for more information. It may be that your local DEP will also be starting this process from a zero baseline, as in Massachusetts, but by working with your DEP you can help to foster a positive dialogue and lay the groundwork for additional adoption and uptake of relevant guidance in other states.