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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.
This is the second piece in a two part series. Click here to read part one.
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.
Expansion into other communities of color
As the wood pellet industry continues to grow across the South, Enviva has targeted Alabama and Mississippi for future expansion. The company is building facilities producing significantly larger quantities of wood pellets for export through a deep water marine port and storage silo currently under construction in Pasagoula, Mississippi. In each state, the company's pitch remains the same: jobs and economic development.
"They go into these low wealth communities, promise opportunity, and a lot of residents bite on it," said Rev. Michael Malcom, executive director of Alabama Interfaith Power and Light. "If we could get ahead of this, we could go in and tell them about the dangers of the wood pellet industry. But unfortunately, the way the system works in Alabama, ADEM keeps things under wraps until it's time for the public hearing."
Alabama has the third most timberland acreage in the contiguous 48 states, much of it in the form of pine plantations owned by private absentee landowners disconnected from local residents. Enviva's first Alabama facility will be located in a small Black town called Epes, and is projected to open in 2021, with a production capacity of over one million metric tons of wood pellets per year. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) approved the permit last December, with additional support from Alabama governor Kay Ivey.
Malcom said it is likely that Enviva spends as much as a full year making the case for a new manufacturing plant in a community, promising good jobs and low environmental impacts.
"When they announce [the facility], it's already too late. [Enviva has] already gone in [to the community] and greased the wheel," Malcom told EHN.
Through mutual connections to the Dogwood Alliance, Malcom teamed up with Mississippi-based Katherine Egland, Chair of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Committee and Co-founder of the Education, Economics, Environmental, Climate and Health Organization to develop interventions for preventing the growth of the wood pellet industry in the Southeast. Their first chance was in Lucedale, Mississippi, a predominantly White rural community, where Enviva is now constructing a facility permitted last July. Malcom said Enviva had already convinced many people that the mill would be a good thing for the community, bringing much needed jobs.
"[At the public hearing] they were basically shooting our talking points back to us and saying, 'so what?'" Malcom said. "One guy literally said, 'They [Enviva opponents] tell us we can get cancer. What's wrong with that? Got to have something."
After the hearing in Lucedale, Enviva released a statement saying that it was "proud to have the opportunity to create 90 direct jobs in Lucedale, 30 direct jobs in Pascagoula, and hundreds of additional indirect and construction jobs." It also made a disclaimer that any 'forward looking statements' about its operations were estimated projections, and could not be assured.
Regardless of the jobs projections, Zucchino said that the longer term impacts of the industry undermine other forms of economic growth.
"Industrial logging-dependent communities are some of the most poverty stricken places in the South," Zucchino said. "If industrial logging were the solution to these places, they'd be some of the wealthiest on earth. It's just not true."
Back in North Carolina, a predominantly Indigenous and Black community in Robeson County, were largely unswayed by the economic promise of the wood pellet industry. Already burdened with hog factory farms, coal ash waste sites, a landfill, a poultry litter burning plant, and increasing flood risk due to climate change, Robeson County residents mounted a long opposition campaign against a new wood pellet facility owned by London-based Active Energy Group (AEG), including over 1000 public comments, substantial media coverage, and a public hearing in which an overwhelming majority of speakers opposed the plant. Nevertheless, NCDEQ approved an air permit for AEG in June. Construction is already in progress.
Unlike the white wood pellets manufactured by companies like Enviva, which require energy utilities to retrofit their coal incinerators, AEG's facility will manufacture wood pellets called CoalSwitch, designed to be a direct substitute for coal, with no retrofits required.
"There's a lot of moving pieces with this facility, and kind of a lot of confusion," Zucchino said. "Not a lot of clarity [about whether] they have contracts for export, how big are they going to be. [AEG] is pioneering this [black wood pellet technology]; they've tried it in Utah without success… it hasn't been done successfully anywhere as far as I know."
Zaynab Nasif, public information officer for the Division of Air Quality at NCDEQ wrote via email that the agency provided additional avenues for community participation for the AEG site, and responded to concerns raised during that process by adding more stringent testing requirements for hazardous pollutants to the facility's air permit.
But many residents of Robeson County, which is about 180 miles from Northampton County, are already suffering from high rates of respiratory illness, including COVID-19. Additionally, clear cutting more of the county's forests for wood pellet production will likely exacerbate the region's climate vulnerability.
There are approximately 40 wood pellet plants operating, proposed, or prospective in the U.S. South. Map by Andrew Murray.
"Enough is enough," said Joyner, who travels frequently to Robeson County. "I've seen the damage that has been done there. It's a shame to want to wreak havoc on a community in that way."
"We would not do this to our land"
In recent years, some new communities impacted by the wood pellet industry have begun organizing against it. Residents of the Netherlands, who pay significant tariffs for the shipment of wood pellets from the U.S., traveled to North Carolina and other parts of the South to understand the environmental impacts of the industry, and to fight for better climate policies in the EU.
"We have had people come here wondering, 'why are you doing this to your land? We would not do this to our land,'" said Harding, who lives in Northampton County. "They see that America was destroying land just for a dollar, and that was really troublesome to them. They don't understand pretty much like we don't understand."
Since Egland started organizing with Malcom in Mississippi and Alabama a couple of years ago, she's been struck by historic parallels of the wood pellet industry with other extractive legacies in the South and has been working locally and globally to motivate others to intervene.
"I am reminded with the wood pellet trade, if you look at the map of the wood pellet trade states and the former cotton trade states, they are the same," she said. "The UK ignored the human rights abuses of the cotton trade, with slavery, now they are imperiling the descendants of that same population with the wood pellets. [The U.S. South] also happens to be the most climate vulnerable region in the nation."
There are some signs of progress, including European policies limiting wood pellet imports and decreased expansion of the industry in the U.S. South. Recently, North Carolina governor Roy Cooper and NCDEQ committed to excluding wood pellets from the state's energy mix in its Clean Energy Plan.
Richter says an opening for change is on the horizon in the EU, as the government must revisit its existing climate legislation to prepare for new greenhouse gas reduction targets—a 55 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. One piece of that legislation is the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which he says is driving the demand for wood pellets as renewable energy. Kicking wood pellets out of the "renewables club" would kill existing subsidies for the industry, which he hopes can be diverted to pay for solar, wind, and water energy sources.
"[T]here's also the European Green Deal, the European road map for making economies sustainable. The person responsible for that is Franz Timmermans, the Vice President of the EU. He's said that bioenergy needs to be reviewed. And we hope that he can become a bit of a champion for our demands."
Zucchino also sees some momentum building against the wood pellet industry, from coalitions forming regionally, within states, and internationally.
"One of the things I'm proudest of in my time at Dogwood [Alliance] is the amount of movement building that we've accomplished around this issue," she said. "We are seeing encouraging advances in the understanding of and policy around the wood pellet industry. But we need to see more and we need to see it happen quickly."