pollution, wood pellet mill
Photo credit: Namibiabcbu / Capital and Main

In many poor, largely Black Southern towns, residents say polluting wood pellet mills foul their air and forests.

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Treva Gear, chair of the Concerned Citizens of Cook County, was born in rural south Georgia in the close-knit hamlet of Adel, not far from four pick-your-own-peaches orchards. But her childhood memories of sweetness in the natural world run weedier and wilder. 

“When I think back, I would love to drink that sweet little drop of juice from the honeysuckles, go berry-picking, or blow on the dandelions, not knowing it was actually spreading them everywhere,” she said. 

But now she and the Concerned Citizens of Cook County have graver worries than dandelions and imperfect lawns.

Two wood pellet biomass processing plants have sought air permits in Adel, and by its own assessment, the one proposed by Spectrum Energy Georgia LLC could be the largest in the world. If built, it will produce 1.3 million tons of pellets per year for export, and Gear is certain folks in Adel will take the health and environmental hits first.

“But ultimately,” she said, “everyone will pay a price.”

Each individual pellet is made from forests felled by clear-cutting, more than 900,000 acres in the South in the last decade, the trees dried, shredded and, in a heavily chemical-dependent process, ground into capsules, according to a report by the Dogwood Alliance, an environmental justice group. 

The process affects largely poor, Black communities, which endure around-the-clock noise, truck exhaust in their neighborhoods, and waves of sawdust that leave many residents coughing and wheezing with debilitating respiratory disease, according to industry critics. The NAACP adopted a resolution in 2021 opposing the industry. 

The pellets are manufactured for export to be burned in European and Asian electricity generation plants far away from their source and collateral damage, critics said.

“These industries are killing us,” Gear said.

The US Industrial Pellet Association has issued reports that emphasize the role of wood pellet production in climate mitigation and forest stewardship, but do not address the health impacts on those who live near the plants’ wood chippers and smokestacks.

Spectrum’s processing plant would be built on the site of a defunct particleboard mill, so this is not Adel’s first experience with a polluting wood products industry. But it is the first time the town finds itself up against an industry being touted as a climate change solution. President Trump’s administration designated biomass as “carbon neutral” and “renewable,” comparable to solar or wind power. The designation gave the wood pellet industry the aura of being environmentally friendly and opened the door for it to apply for federal tax credits available to providers of clean energy for which it had not previously been considered.

Neither Spectrum nor Renewable Biomass Group, the second company hoping to bring a wood mill to Adel, responded to Capital & Main’s request for comment on claims that the process is neither “carbon neutral” nor “renewable,” and that companies should not be eligible for tax credits predicated on such designations. 

Industry critics dispute the carbon-neutral status of the wood pellet trade and insist it’s dirtier in terms of air toxics and particulate matter and emits more greenhouse gases than burning coal.

In January, Concerned Citizens entered into a settlement agreement with Spectrum, though not necessarily because residents wanted to. 

“My executive committee and I sat down and talked with them,” Gear said. “They wanted to know what we wanted. We made it clear that we did not want the wood pellet plant in our community by any means.”

The group reasoned, however, that negotiating an agreement with the company didn’t preclude it from also pursuing a political solution so it laid out the protections it wanted.

Gear said the agreement requires Spectrum to use a backup biofilter to limit emissions; issue monthly reporting in the first year, pegged to decreases in production within specified timelines if emissions are too high; and if found in violation they’ll have to pay fines to benefit the community. The company, Gear said, will have to monitor for more hazardous air pollutants than currently required by state and federal regulators, and if it cannot demonstrate compliance within the first year, will not be allowed to expand from half operation to full production. 

Members of Concerned Citizens said they will be involved in the formulation of a “fugitive dust” plan. Fugitive dust is defined by the EPA as dust that arises from the mechanical disturbance of granular material exposed to the air. A telephone complaint hotline will be set up, Gear said, and Spectrum will be required to meet with the community every six months to report on its activity. It will also be required to supply air filters and monitoring to homes closest to the plant. The plant’s wood chippers will not be allowed to operate after 7 p.m. to mitigate noise, she said.

“On that day, we were negotiating the life or death of our community,” Gear said.

She likened the experience to taking a plea agreement for a crime you didn’t commit to avoid more dire consequences. “Knowing that even if we’d gone to court, there was a chance the industry would still be permitted, and it would have the lowest level of regulatory requirements,” Gear said.

Spectrum did not respond to Capital & Main’s request to confirm the terms of the settlement agreement with Concerned Citizens or say whether they’d be willing to go further if the concessions don’t go far enough in helping residents.

On October 19, Gear was among 30 representatives of environmental justice organizations from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina who traveled to Washington to plead for help. They said they’ve been living with the wood pellet processing burden or feared it and had been ignored again and again by state and local governments. So they took their demand for the fundamental right to breathe clean air to President Biden’s doorstep, where they held a news conference outside the White House. Some seemed to labor to breathe as they spoke. 

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) joined the news conference and said the wood pellet industry shouldn’t exist at all in the US.

“We need to listen to communities who are hurting, and who have air they can’t breathe, and stand up for their dignity,” Khanna said.

Besides removing the wood pellet industry’s designation as being carbon neutral, speakers urged the president to prod Congress to gut industry subsidies under the Farm Act and to increase monitoring and industry accountability under the Clean Air Act.

“Until we change their designations and stop the financial pipeline, this industry will be hard to stop,” Gear said. “When you see 30 folks, you know there’s been some level of injustice. People haven’t been heard.”

The president’s Council on Environmental Quality did not respond to Capital & Main’s request for comment regarding the activists’ grievances aired at the October 19 news conference and their demands that the “carbon neutral” and “renewable” designations be removed from the wood pellet processing industry.

Danna Smith formed the Dogwood Alliance in 1996 to create a unified regional front to protect Southern forests and communities from the effects of industrial logging and wood and paper production.

After witnessing 27 years of industry valuing commodity timber over forest ecosystems, Smith deemed it “a failed economic strategy for rural communities.” According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Southeast now has 25 pellet mills and another 13 (including the two proposed for Adel) are in various stages of development. From a climate perspective, the industry is unsustainable because “the rate and scale of logging in the South is estimated to be four times greater than the rainforests in South America,” Smith said.

Dogwood Alliance members were torn about confronting Biden on the issue until he issued a proclamation calling for a National Forest Products Week and designated $50 million of federal money for wood market expansion, including wood energy markets. That convinced the group it was time to act. 

Cited as the world’s biggest wood pellet firm by the Rachel Carson Council, Enviva, Inc. has seen its stock price slip from more than $60 per share to less than $4 in the last year. “They’ve applied for 48C subsidies under the Inflation Reduction Act,” Smith said, “but those are for clean energy. We think there’s opportunity to intervene to cut those subsidies off and send a major shockwave into the investment community.” The Inflation Reduction Act added $10 billion in funding for tax credits which are intended for investments in clean energy production or carbon capture and sequestration projects.

The environmental groups plan to return to Washington in January to meet with the US Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Council on Environmental Quality, and other agencies to discuss the matter.  

“Biden has said he wants an all-government approach to environmental justice. I think the community is going to speak its truth,” Smith said.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) confirmed his office’s participation to Capital & Main and said he’s already started talking with the EPA about a community meeting in his district.

“Companies locate in rural areas with a higher rates of poverty and, to some degree, substantial minority population and somehow sell the community that it’s a jobs program,” he said. “Let me put it like this, I’m not wanting to harm any citizen in my district under the guise of jobs.”

Gear said, “We’re trying to be the Paul Reveres, letting the federal government know how we feel, because we know they have the power to stop it.”

The wood pellet industry is now looking to locate in California forests and is already being met with opposition.

This story by Frances Madeson was originally published by Capital & Main and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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