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A controversy with reverberations across the Atlantic Ocean is brewing in Hamlet, North Carolina – a literal hamlet 120 miles northwest of Wilmington – where a new wood-pellet facility is already in the initial stages of construction.
The mill would become the fourth in North Carolina and the seventh in the Southeast built and operated by Maryland-based Enviva, the largest producer of wood pellets in the world.
The dried and compressed bits of wood produced at the plant would be shipped from Wilmington to a power company in the United Kingdom, who plans to burn them instead of coal as part of the country’s effort to slash greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by the end of the decade.
The problem, according to many energy analysts, is that burning pellets creates more global warming pollution than coal, not less. One prominent research ecologist even calls wood biomass “the new coal.”
At the same time, environmental advocates say the new mill will further the destruction of deciduous forests in the Southeast – especially in wetlands – and disproportionately harm public health in Dobbins Heights, an overwhelmingly African-American town two miles northeast of the facility.
“There’s a lot at stake,” said Emily Zucchino of the forest-advocacy group Dogwood Alliance, which is among dozens of organizations urging North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper to revoke the facility’s air quality license.
State environmental officials never held a public hearing about the Enviva proposal, and listed an incomplete, then an incorrect physical address on two iterations of the plant’s permits – actions that advocates contend violated state and federal rules and kept local citizens in the dark.
“It’s very clear the community is entitled to a public hearing before this facility moves forward and is built,” said Myra Blake, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It’s required under the law.”
On behalf of the Concerned Citizens of Richmond County, Blake’s organization has filed a legal complaint to force a do-over of the mill’s approval process. A hearing in that quasi-judicial proceeding is scheduled for the last week of November.
But until then, the facility’s license is valid, and opponents worry that the more progress Enviva makes in building it, the more difficult it will be to stop. “It’s a fairly urgent situation,” said Blake.
‘North Carolina is ground zero’
Both U.S. and European policy treat wood pellets as a sustainable, renewable fuel under a two-pronged rationale: they’re good for the climate, because new trees will absorb whatever global warming pollution their combustion produces; and they’re not a threat to forests, because they’re made from manufacturing byproducts, low-grade wood and unusable parts of trees that are harvested anyway.
Over nearly two decades, however, scientists and advocates have challenged both of these arguments.
Because of its water content, more volume of wood than coal is required to produce the same amount of electricity, producing higher emissions. Even when dried, wood produces more planet-warming carbon dioxide than coal. A five-month Climate Central investigation of emissions data from Drax, one of the U.K.’s largest power producers, found the company’s biomass boilers produced 15 to 20 percent more carbon dioxide when they burned wood versus coal.
“That doesn’t even factor in the loss of a forest’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide after it’s cut down and used for electricity, nor does it account for pollution from drying and transporting the wood,” Climate Central wrote.
A 2015 analysis for the Southern Environmental Law Center examining the loss of forests found that Enviva wood pellets supplied to Drax would create two and a half times more greenhouse gas emissions than coal over 40 years. A 2014 study by the U.K.’s environmental agency also factored in drying and transportation costs; it found climate pollution from southeastern U.S. wood pellets to be three times that of coal.
Enviva acknowledges that less than a quarter of its supply comes from wood manufacturing byproducts; the rest comes directly from forests an average of 36 years old. It doesn’t specify, however, how much is from whole trees versus “tops” that can’t be used for high-grade lumber.
Dogwood Alliance says the Hamlet facility is intended to help Drax complete a conversion of its coal-fired unit completely to biomass, which would require another 2.4 million tons of wood pellets per year.
“There’s no way they’re using tops and limbs to do that. There’s not enough residuals in the world for it,” said Scot Quaranda with Dogwood, which estimates the facility would have to process 50 acres of trees daily to meet demand from Drax.
While biomass proponents say selectively harvesting whole trees eliminates disease and unhealthy undergrowth, Quaranda says Enviva is doing more than simply thinning out forests.
“We do a lot of on the ground investigations, so we have evidence of wetlands being clear cut to go to Enviva facilities,” he said.
Reached for a response to these claims, the company mostly demurred, pointing to its website.
But advocates say the company’s own filings with the European Union show that its mills in North Carolina and Virginia use 80 percent hardwoods – low-lying deciduous forests that are plentiful along the states’ coastal plains and critical for clean water and habitat.
And to whatever degree they’re cut, there’s no requirement in the U.S., the U.K., or the European Union that these forests be replanted. “That’s why North Carolina is ground zero right now,” said Quaranda.
Dispute over environmental justice
While Enviva declined to offer a direct rebuttal to its opponents, a spokesperson confirmed that construction of the Hamlet plant was underway, and offered statements from two Richmond County officials in favor of it.
“The Enviva project has the overwhelming support of the community – our commissioners, our citizens and our local businesses are all very excited about Enviva and the opportunity it brings to Richmond County,” said one of the officials, Rick Sago, the Richmond County Manager.
Advocates admit there’s plenty of political support for the new plant.
“Politicians will say they love it, but what the politicians ignore are the environmental justice laws, and the sensitivities with this,” said Cary Rodgers, a coordinator with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, of which Concerned Citizens of Richmond County is a chapter.
Debra David, the treasurer of the citizens’ group, says neither these elected officials nor Enviva adequately notified the residents who’d be most affected by the plant.
“They kept it close to them,” David said. “At the beginning, all of the people in the Dobbins Heights community and the ones who live close to the plant had never heard of Enviva coming.”
Many still aren’t aware of the company’s plans. “If Enviva was so great, everybody in Richmond County should know Enviva’s here,” she said.
Opponents point out that Dobbins Heights is over 80 percent African-American, and that the community is already threatened by the expansion of a fossil fuel plant, an extension of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and other forms of pollution.
“They don’t like talking about it, but people are getting sick,” said Rodgers, who pointed out a 2016 assessment that ranked Richmond County near the bottom in the state for health outcomes. “This is just an added pollution source, and there’s going to be detrimental effects.”
Wood pellet production releases volatile organic compounds and fine particulate matter that can harm public health, according to more than 50 health professionals who wrote Cooper last week opposing the Hamlet facility.
In 2000, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality adopted a policy designed to give communities like Dobbins Heights more notice and input before moving forward with new sources of air emissions like the Enviva plant – a policy advocates say wasn’t followed.
“The DEQ stated policy is to provide more outreach and more opportunities for communities when there are environmental justice concerns, not less,” said the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Blake.
Still, advocates say it’s not too late for Cooper and his administration to correct the wrongs of the past. With letters, phone calls, and a forum in Wilmington later this month, they’re ramping up efforts to get the permit revoked immediately.
“We have hope and faith that Gov. Cooper and DEQ will do the right thing and emerge as heroes on this issue,” said Zucchino, the Dogwood Alliance organizer.