By: David Boraks
November 18, 2022
The state's growing wood pellet industry came under fire at a meeting in Raleigh last night from scientists, activists and residents who live near wood pellet plants.
The meeting's main target was Enviva, the world's largest wood pellet manufacturer, which has four plants in eastern North Carolina. The company cuts trees and turns them into wood pellets that are shipped to Europe to be burned for electricity.
All four of Enviva's North Carolina plants are in counties with high poverty rates and large populations of people of color. At the meeting of the Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board, Ruby Bell of Sampson County, said that makes this an environmental justice issue.
"DEQ has an obligation under Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to consider disproportionate impacts," she said.
Bell said most of her neighbors are afraid to speak up.
"They don't feel that their voices will be heard. Their feeling is what's the use, meaning that the county and the state government are going to do whatever they want to do, with no concern for them," she said.
She said when Enviva was first recruited to the county, local leaders ignored residents who opposed the plant, and instead gave the company a multi-million-dollar subsidy.
The board scheduled the meeting after writing a letter to environmental secretary Elizabeth Biser in September expressing concerns about the industry. The board worried about the impact on communities with large non-white populations and high poverty and about excessive logging of forests around the plants. And they said the industry does not contribute to the state’s goal of increasing renewable and other clean energy production.
Pollution and destruction
During the 2½-hour meeting, more than two dozen speakers complained about dust, air pollution and noise, and said the industry is not climate friendly.
"This industry is not contributing to any of our goals to increase renewable or clean energy production," said Maritza Mendoza. "It rather continues the status quo of continuing our practices of extraction and deforestation. And so I really hope folks think critically about whether this is good for any of us."
In Europe, wood pellets are subsidized and treated as a carbon-neutral fuel. The industry says the carbon is accounted for where the trees are cut. Climate scientist William Moomaw (MOO-maw) said many factors aren't considered.
"When wood is burned, it releases more carbon dioxide immediately than does any coal or any other fossil fuel to produce the same amount of energy or heat or electricity. Second, the forest that would have kept on growing would have accumulated three to 10 times as much carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by 2100 as would the regrown cut forest," Moomaw said.
While many comments were about the industry broadly, speakers from a group called Impacted Communities Against Wood Pellets urged the DEQ to reject Enviva's pending request for an air quality permit to expand its plant in Ahoskie, in Hertford County. The plant is near tribal lands of the Meherrin. Tribe member Hannah Jeffries called on the company and DEQ to improve communication.
"I'm here to let you know, after speaking to my chief, my chairman, my council, members of my general body, we were not aware, fully, what the industry was doing to the community," Jeffries said.
Other speakers called on state regulators to begin tracking the industry's carbon emissions.
Emily Zucchino of the Dogwood Alliance, an environmental justice group that's part of the coalition, said they're also worried that the pellet industry's growth will further endanger North Carolina forests.
"This permit (Ahoskie) also has a massive expansion of production and there's no forum to express concerns about the impact of that expansion. The industry talks about forest health and forest growth in a way that's misleading," Zucchino said.
At the meeting's end, advisory board chair Jim Johnson hinted that the board would pass along at least some of the recommendations to Biser.
"I think that it is incumbent upon us as an advisory board to take seriously everything that we've heard and make known to the secretary and all the people at DEQ our stance on what we've heard," he said.
In a statement before the meeting, Enviva said its plans provide "well-paid jobs and create a positive economic impact."
The company said that air quality near its plants complies with environmental laws and regulations. And it said the air quality permit for Ahoskie would allow it to begin installing state-of-the art emission control equipment.