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This story was published in partnership with Southerly and Environmental Health News for our Powerlines series, which looks at climate change, justice, and infrastructure in the American South. The series is supported by the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University, and is part of their POWER project.
In 2013, when Enviva Biomass opened a new plant near Belinda Joyner's community in Northampton County, North Carolina, she already knew what to expect.
As the Northeast Organizer for Clean Water for North Carolina, she'd met with residents of a small, majority Black town called Ahoskie, 40 miles from her home. Enviva had built its first North Carolina plant there two years before.
The corporation, which manufactures wood pellets as a purportedly renewable alternative to coal, did what most industries do in prospective communities—they promised jobs, economic development, and minimal impacts. What Ahoskie got was approximately 50 direct jobs, local tree loss, noise, heavy traffic, air pollution, and combustible dust from wood drying and processing that threatens their health and enjoyment of their homes. On top of those impacts, as many scientists and environmental groups now say, wood pellets are not the hoped-for transition fuel championed just 11 years ago.
However, like Ahoskie, Joyner's community wasn't quick to organize against the plant.
"I made an announcement in my church that this plant was coming and I kind of gave them a gist of what it would entail and at first, you know how people just don't kinda pay you any attention?" she told EHN. "And then once [Enviva] start building it, then they were saying 'oh this is coming,' and I told them 'this is what I tried to tell you all about.'"
In June, I interviewed Joyner and other members of her community in Northampton County, which is located in the Northeast corner of the state, close to the Virginia state line. The area is rural, and peppered with industries—including Westrock Paper Mill, a warehouse and distribution center for Lowe's Hardware, an industrial hog farm, and Enviva. Until it was canceled in late July, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was slated to run through the county, connecting to a newly constructed compressor station.
The county is also majority Black (57 percent), with 21 percent of residents living in poverty compared to 14 percent statewide, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census. The county's median household income is 38 percent lower than the state as a whole; it is classified by North Carolina as a "Tier 1" county, meaning that it is among the 40 most economically distressed of the state's 100 counties.
Joyner's home sits in a cozy loop of houses in a small Northampton County town. As I pull up to her house, she's sitting on her porch with her sister and neighbors, chatting with masks on. The community is tight; they've shared a lot of their lives in this place.
For seven years, they've also had to share the burdens and losses from Enviva.
There are approximately 40 wood pellet plants operating, proposed, or prospective in the U.S. South. Map by Andrew Murray.
"I call Northampton County the dumping ground," Joyner said. "Being that we live right here off I-95, and it's easy access, they just feel like more or less they can just come in here and give us anything, and we're supposed to be happy after we get it."
Enviva is the world's largest producer of industrial wood pellets and is part of a rapidly growing industry in the U.S. South, where companies find ample forests, lax business regulations, and ports along the Atlantic coast. Though there is some domestic demand for wood pellets for electric utilities—particularly in the Northeast—the majority of wood pellets manufactured in the region are exported to the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK), to fulfill global commitments to mitigate climate change by reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
Other wood pellet companies have flocked to the region, including Drax, a major energy utility in the UK that now manufactures wood pellets in the U.S. South to burn them overseas in its power plants. Collectively, the region's wood pellet industry exports more than 7.4 million tons of pellets per year. With facility expansions and several prospective plants on the horizon, that number is expected to climb in coming years.
From Northampton County to Alabama's Black Belt, residents and activists say companies like Enviva exploit mostly communities of color with promises to build up busted local economies with a "green energy" industry. Instead, communities hosting wood pellet facilities are not only further burdened by pollution and other local dangers, they are also entangled in yet another climate damaging trend—the destruction of biodiverse hardwood forests and the rise of monoculture tree plantations to produce energy that appears to pose climate threats similar to coal.
The "transition" fuel
The rise of the wood pellet industry in the U.S. South can be traced back to 2009, when wood pellets were touted as a "transition fuel" that could be used to advance the European Union's (EU) climate goals—a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels, and a 20 percent increase in renewable energy by 2020. Wood pellets were considered to be renewable energy because replanted forests could recapture carbon lost in the clear cutting and burning process. They were also coveted because unlike solar, wind, or water energy, wood pellets can be burned in the same incinerators as coal with some retrofits, thus eliminating the expense of new infrastructure. The U.S. South was targeted for sourcing wood pellets because of its status as the world's "wood basket"—it is the largest producer of wood products, according to Emily Zucchino, Director of Community Engagement for the Dogwood Alliance, an environmental nonprofit committed to protect[ing] Southern forests across 14 [U.S.] states.
Enviva Biomass, headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, has a large foothold in the region, with nine wood pellet manufacturing plants across six states—North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Virginia and Mississippi—and two more facilities pending. A sign outside of the Ahoskie facility reads, "This is Enviva Country." A spokesperson wrote that the company has a production capacity of 4.9 million metric tons of pellets per year.
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Several other wood pellet production companies also operate in the region—Pinnacle Renewable Energy Inc in Alabama, Highland Pellets in Arkansas, Mohegan Renewable Energy in Tennessee, and Drax, which manufactures wood pellets mostly near the Gulf Coast.
But even if the EU has met its 2020 climate goals—the region claims to have already reduced emissions by 23.2 percent in 2018—the use of wood pellets raises important questions about the EU's carbon accounting, [PDM1] and even more questions about public health and climate consequences for the U.S. South, which is already bearing the brunt of climate change effects.
"As more and more science came out about the industry… it became clear that this is not the green and carbon neutral energy it was made out to be," Zucchino told EHN.
According to a 2009 study on climate accounting published in Science Magazine, at the point of combustion, wood pellets put more carbon into the atmosphere than coal, despite generating less energy per unit than coal. Other studies, like one published in 2012 in GBC Bioenergy, directly challenge the idea that wood pellets are renewable energy because forests can be replanted. The "carbon debt" generated when forests are cut and their stored carbon is burned into the atmosphere can take decades, if not more than a century, to "repay" through forest regrowth. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says humans must reduce carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030 to avoid the most catastrophic climate change impacts.
What makes the wood pellet strategy even more complicated is that, due to loopholes in the EU climate policy, carbon emissions from burning wood pellets are often never counted.
Kenneth Richter, a Germany-based environmental policy consultant for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that the loophole is due to the disconnect in carbon accounting between the EU's land use change policies and its energy policies. Carbon loss is measured only when trees are cut, and not when they're burned for power. Another problem is that when pellets are imported, the EU counts no emissions at all. Though the theory is that the exporting nations would account for those emissions from clear cutting forests, the U.S. does not account for carbon loss from the wood pellet industry because it is no longer part of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
"You have massive amounts of carbon going into the atmosphere but everyone pretends they're not there," Richter said. "Everyone else says it's someone else's responsibility."
The EU and UK also provide heavy subsidies to the industry because of the expense of importing wood pellets. Their reliance on the energy source to meet stringent emissions targets is now heavily political—and hard to correct—despite the growing scientific evidence against it.
"Energy companies in many European countries have obligations to produce a certain percentage from renewable sources," Richter said. "It's easiest to burn wood with coal, much cheaper than solar panels. They're pushing the governments—if you don't allow us to do this [burn wood pellets] and don't subsidize us we're going to fail. Drax is a prime example. It produces a large percentage of the UK's electricity. If [UK] took subsidies away from Drax, it would fail and cause difficulties in producing enough electricity in the short term."
"It's fine to have jobs, but give us some jobs that don't kill us"
Northampton County residents like Joyner are more immediately concerned about the acute impacts of wood pellet manufacturing, from local clear cutting of privately-owned forests to the 24/7 production process.
"The noise… banging and during all hours of the night," Silverleen Alston, who lives about a mile from Enviva's plant in Northampton County, told EHN in our interview at Joyner's home. "I used to call up there [to Enviva] and tell them, why don't they stop, lower the noise or whatever, till I stopped. I don't even do it no more."
In addition to the noise from grinding trees and truck traffic, Alston and others complain about a constant cloud of dust flowing from the plant onto their homes, cars, gardens, and into their lungs.
"The stuff is in the air, coming [in] all directions. I keep my car in a carport, and you can see the stuff on the car. So you know it's not just coming down from above," Alston said.
A 2018 report by the Environmental Integrity Project found that 21 wood pellet mills exporting to the EU emit thousands of tons of particulate matter (fine dust), carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides (smog), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) per year, each of which are associated with a range of illnesses, from respiratory and heart disease to cancer. These wood pellet mills also emit 3.1 million tons of greenhouse gases per year. The report also found that at least a third of wood pellet facilities violated their air permit limits in 2017. Fires and explosions have erupted in plants in five states largely from wood dust, which is combustible. In 2017, a wood pellet storage silo owned by German Pellets in Port Arthur, Texas, caught fire and burned unchecked for two months, sending many local residents to the hospital. Later that year, a worker at the silo died when pellets fell on the Bobcat machine he was operating.
Many of Alston's family members, who live together on a large plot of land they own, suffer from respiratory illnesses that have been exacerbated since Enviva's arrival. Her father had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and died two years ago. Her aunt also has COPD, and her sister has to sleep on a breathing machine. Alston, her mother, and another sister all have breathing problems, though not as severe.
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Other community members complain about not being able to spend as much time outdoors anymore.
"We have a gentleman that lives in the area, he said that he has to wash his car every three days and power wash his house every three months, and that's the stuff that comes from Enviva," Joyner said. "There's a young man that lives out there that says he doesn't cook out anymore because he can see the residue falling from the sky."
Richie Harding, a pastor of a local church in Northampton County, doesn't live close enough to Enviva to experience the dust, but the private forest where Enviva sources its trees is near his house. When I interviewed him by phone, he told me that large swaths of the forest are now gone and listed the wildlife he's observed in the area since the clear cutting.
"There's been a high increase in the amount of animals," Harding said. "Bobcats, black bears… coyotes… sightings more frequent in the Gaston area."
In an email response Enviva's director of communications and public affairs María Moreno wrote that Enviva follows all applicable environmental laws, including the U.S. Clean Air Act, and even exceeds regulation standards in controlling air pollution at its facilities.
"We use state-of-the-art, industry-proven air emission controls to reduce emissions from our manufacturing process with at least 95 percent destruction efficiency," Moreno wrote. "We are going above and beyond what is required by the law as an industry leader to show our commitment to environmental stewardship in the communities where we live and operate."
Despite installing additional pollution controls and obtaining an environmental justice (EJ) analysis approved by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) last year, Enviva's claims do not reflect the daily experiences of residents living near the facility. In my interview with Alston, she told me that her husband still has to wash the dust from the plant off their car every other day. Further, a 2018 study of wood pellet mills in the U.S. South found that all wood pellet mills in North Carolina and South Carolina are located in low income communities of color typically overburdened by toxic industry. Across the region, the authors found that they are 50 percent more likely to be located in low income communities of color.
As for the forest impacts, Moreno wrote that Enviva only takes "low grade wood," which is a "by-product of a traditional timber harvest," and that the higher demand for forest products like wood pellets leads to more forest growth.
But Richter, the EU-based environmental policy consultant, says the term "low-grade wood" is business jargon for otherwise healthy trees that are not valuable for the industry, but are very valuable for the planet. He says the increased forest growth that Enviva claims comes from higher demand for wood products is not the same kind of naturally occurring forests that people recognize.
"[O]ften these naturally grown forests are cut down and replaced with something that's essentially a plantation," Richter said. "Trees in rows, monoculture. One species, fairly fast growing, hardly any space between them. Sprayed with fertilizers [and] pesticides. It's an agricultural crop. You lose the wildlife and biodiversity of what you previously had in a natural forest. Companies still call that a forest but it's nowhere near what's contained in an actual natural forest."
According to a 2018 Dogwood Alliance report, since 1953, the U.S. South has lost over 33 million acres of natural forest, and gained 40 million acres of pine plantations.
See also: Residents of an Alabama superfund site say it's not their responsibility to be watchdogs
Black families like Alston's and Joyner's have owned land in Northampton County for generations, and experienced the closeness and safety of the communities, the freedom of living on the land. Joyner says the noise and pollution made some people in her community want to move away. She called one of her friends who moved an hour south to Zebulon, North Carolina, "one of the fortunate ones."
But many others can't afford to move—and some don't want to. "[Enviva] had mentioned to us, you know, had we thought about moving?" Alston said. "I'm on family earned land, that my grandaddy was invested in. To me, I really can say they couldn't pay me enough to move."
Enviva got support from Northampton County Commissioners before opening the plant in 2013. They made the same promises that they made to Ahoskie—economic development and jobs. But according to Joyner, the public hearings for Enviva's permit, organized by NCDEQ, were mostly publicized in newspapers and on posters tacked along the road. Not many knew they were happening, or understood what was at stake, so there was low attendance.
"If you really wanted to know what [the poster] was, you basically had to get out of your car and go and look at it," Joyner said.
After the plant was built, and residents began experiencing the pollution and noise, they joined forces with Dogwood Alliance, which has been monitoring the growth of the wood pellet industry across the U.S. South, to advocate for improved environmental conditions at the plant. But after several meetings with the county commission, Enviva plant administrators and the company's former public relations director, there were no improvements to the plant; the company has donated resources to local schools and meals to local residents.
Last year, NCDEQ granted Enviva a permit to expand its Northampton plant , increasing its production capacity from 550,000 metric tons per year to 781,255 metric tons annually.
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"We had a public hearing on the 20th of August last year," Joyner said. "We had 40 or so people there opposed to the expansion and of course the only people who were for the expansion were people who worked for Enviva."
Even if Enviva exceeds the requirements of its own air permit in its expanded facility, as Moreno wrote in our interview, there are still concerns about further deterioration of environmental quality in the community, and what it means for residents' health.
"When I looked at the officer that was choking George Floyd, and he said I can't breathe, this is the same thing that the industries are doing to our communities," Joyner said. "It's fine to have jobs, but give us some jobs that don't kill us."