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Environmental advocates criticize Enviva over new wood pellet plant in West Alabama

Enviva is the largest wood pellet producer in the world. Biomass industry experts claim that wood pellets are a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels like coal. However, environmental groups like Dogwood Alliance disagree, arguing that wood pellet production facilities negatively impact Southern forests, wildlife, climate and communities.
Enviva is the largest wood pellet producer in the world. Biomass industry experts claim that wood pellets are a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels like coal. However, environmental groups like Dogwood Alliance disagree, arguing that wood pellet production facilities negatively impact Southern forests, wildlife, climate and communities.

The world’s largest producer of wood pellets is constructing its latest plant in Sumter County, but environmental advocates are concerned. Enviva started construction on its 11th wood pellet production facility in Epes last year, holding a groundbreaking ceremony for the plant in June and even participating in the small town’s annual Epes Day earlier this month. Despite a close rapport with its future site location, activists with Dogwood Alliance said they believe the plant will do more harm than good.

“The wood pellet industry is not sustainable, nor is it clean or green,” said Dr. Treva Gear, a Georgia State Campaign Manager with Dogwood Alliance. “Burning trees for electricity is actually dirtier than burning coal.

Dogwood Alliance is an environmentalist group based out of Asheville, North Carolina. Gear said the nonprofit’s mission is to keep the Southeast’s forests standing and support environmental justice communities as they oppose industries coming into their communities. The organization also participates in conservation, litigation and creating community solutions for industry-caused air pollution.

The Epes plant will be the largest facility in Enviva’s fleet as well as the largest wood pellet plant in the world, producing up to 1.1 million metric tons of pellets per year by 2025. While Enviva will generate 100 new jobs and indirectly support 250 more in the logging, trucking and shipping industries, Gear said there are few benefits to come from this new plant.

“Is it going to benefit this community? By no means,” she said. “In reality, you’re going to leave the community sick because of the excessive air pollution. [They’re] driving down property values. What we have seen is that poverty rates do not change or they increase in these communities. Furthermore, Enviva hasn’t shown that they can control their pollution in other areas like Northampton, South Carolina or Hamlet, [North Carlina], where they have polluted those communities.”

According to its website, Enviva sources from the most sustainable raw materials in the forest such as tops, limbs, crooked or diseased trees, slash, understory and thin tree lengths. The company claimed it does not source from old growth forests, protected forests or forests designated for conservation. Enviva also stated its wood pellets are derived only from plant matter and that its manufacturing process does not include chemicals.

“Enviva’s wood pellets have significantly lower sodium oxide emissions than fossil fuels and unprocessed woody materials,” the company’s website stated.

However, Gear said Enviva’s operations harm the environment in several different ways. According to Dogwood Alliance, Enviva plants destroy 175,000 acres of Southern forests every year. Gear said the plant in Epes will require roughly 80 acres of forest to be cut down per day.

“The Southeast is known as the wood basket, but we’re losing our trees,” she said. “Most times, these properties are private that are being sold and being logged, and the people are not under any requirement to replant those trees. When they do, they use low-value loblolly pines, which have very little benefit. The whole logging process, you’re degrading wildlife habitats. Trees are essential for cleaning our water, and they are essential to protection from flooding. You can see them expanding across the South and sourcing regions are overlapping. Where are we going to get all these trees from? We’re harvesting our forests at four times the rate of the Amazon.”

Gear said Enviva’s deforestation will inevitably lead to long-term environmental and ecological consequences.

“You create heat islands because you’re cutting these trees down. These places are hotter. There’s less shade,” she said. “In that immediate environment, you’re going to have more pollution, and you have less trees to soak up that pollution. More mature trees do that, but mature trees are 50 to 100 years old. You have wildlife that thrive in these areas, and it’s critical for them to have those habitats and natural things that occur in the soil. When you uproot those trees, you’re taking away homes. In those wetland forests, those are very critical for many wildlife species that visit or migrate there. We’re gonna see less of that as we continue to cut trees down.”

In contrast, Enviva said its wood pellets offer a secure, affordable and sustainable energy source to help combat climate change and global warming.

“Switching from coal to wood bioenergy makes economic and environmental sense,” its website read. “Our sustainable wood pellets can reduce greenhouse gas emissions up to 85% on a lifecycle basis.”

Enviva also reported that its manufacturing process leads to healthy forests year after year. It said for every ton of wood harvested from working forests, another 1.75 tons grow each year. In addition, Enviva stated it has displaced 19.9 million metric tons of coal and conserved 26,008 acres of forest land between 2020 and 2021.

“Many of these forests are grown for timber production, and, after harvesting, they are replanted or naturally regenerated as part of the forest regeneration practice that has been ongoing for centuries in the region,” Enviva’s website stated. “Markets for forest products impact landowner decisions about how to utilize their land and are a key reason landowners continue to invest in forests by planting seedlings, cultivating natural regrowth, managing these timberlands, harvesting and consistently repeating the cycle.”

Dogwood Alliance disagrees. In fact, Gear said it is not just the environment that suffers from Enviva’s actions; it’s also the local community. Firstly, Gear said wood pellet plants impact residents’ health.

“What we see in terms of the human impact is the excess of harmful particulate matter, multiple volatile organic compounds that create smog and then you got hazardous air pollutants that are carcinogenic like Acrolein and Formaldehyde,” she said. “You’ve got tons of these being produced, not to mention wood dust. Some particulate matter you can see, some you can't see. Those things put people at risk of premature death, heart disease, asthma and other health issues.”

Gear said negative health impacts from particulates and volatile organic compounds are commonly reported, including resident reports near one Enviva plant in North Carolina.

“These are issues that we see in communities like Hamlet, and they only produce 567,000 tons [of pellets] there, which is two times less [than the new Epes plant], but they’re causing the same amount of damage,” she said. “People talk about them being on multiple inhalers and breathing machines. What is Enviva going to do different? This is nothing different. This is a consistent practice, and these results and outcomes for the community are consistent for Enviva and other wood pellet plants.”

According to Dogwood Alliance, in 2018, Enviva’s North Carolina plants were the largest emitters of volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants in the biomass industry. The organization reported Enviva emitted five to six times the level of hazardous air pollutants. The Epes plant will be three times the size of any North Carolina Enviva plant.

In addition to residents’ long-term health, Gear said peoples’ daily lives will also be negatively impacted by the new Epes plant.

“There's lots of truck traffic. There's lots of noise. You’re disrupting people’s sleep,” she said. “There's also the risk of fires and explosions just from the pellets or sawdust sitting there and catching on fire, and those things can burn for days. We are in a climate crisis, but it seems that with these industries expanding across the Southeast, we are running into a bigger crisis very fast. Our temperatures are rising every year. We can see how hot it is. In July, we had that was the hottest day ever on Earth. We do not have the time. We’re destroying our Earth.”

Enviva offered a different perspective. The renewable energy company announced two years ago that it plans to achieve net-zero greenhouse emissions, particularly net carbon emissions, from its operations by 2030. Enviva also said it plans to source 100% renewable energy from its operations by no later than 2030, with the goal of 50% or more by 2025. In its sustainability report for 2021, Enviva said its wood pellets serve as low-emission energy alternatives for industrial applications, including the production of steel, cement, lime and aviation fuel.

Despite Enviva’s claims, Gear said these community impacts are an example of environmental injustice.

“This is an environmental justice community. It is 91% African American, and the county itself consists of 75% of African Americans. The poverty level is at 25%,” she said. “That’s extreme, and it is the typical community that these types of plants like Enviva and Drax will enter and then call it economic progress. These plants have been shown to cause a great negative impact to these communities that happen to be overburdened by other types of pollution [already] and happen to be communities of color, who may have existing [health] issues. These plants exacerbate their conditions, their lifespan and their general quality of life.”

Dogwood Alliance has taken various forms of action against Enviva, including petitioning, helping communities like Epes organize to oppose these plants themselves and reaching out to the energy company directly. The nonprofit also partners with organizations like the Environmental Integrity Project and other partner groups to provide information for impacted communities about the short- and long-term health impacts of wood pellet facilities. The organization has even worked with governmental entities in the United Kingdom, opposing the biomass industry overseas. Gear said Dogwood Alliance’s goal is to put an end to wood pellet manufacturing altogether.

“The ultimate goal would be to stop Enviva,” she said. “Trees are the solution for pollution. It’s not green to cut them down. It’s pro-deforestation. If not that, [we hope] to slow down the process [of woodcutting] to help conserve our land, provide community solutions, give voice to and advocate for regulation that would make the industry cleaner. But our major goal is to stop [woodcutting] because the only way we can stop the degradation of our forests, keep our air clean and put a pause or slow down the climate crisis would be to stop industries such as Enviva.”

Until then, Gear said there are solutions that could be implemented by state and federal government.

“Federal agencies such as the USDA and the DOE must first categorize the biomass industry as a nonrenewable energy source and stop the tax breaks, incentives and promotions of this industry as a climate solution,” she said. “State agencies need to update their standards to ensure that companies like Enviva are using the most advanced air pollution controls to keep emissions to a minimum. We need federal and state conservation legislation that truly protect our trees through pro-forestation. We need federal legislation protecting environmental justice communities like Epes, from being assaulted by the biomass industry and other polluting industries.”

However, Gear said there are solutions Enviva can also implement at its current and upcoming plants.

“They need to stop locating themselves in communities of color and environmental justice communities, who already suffer,” she said. “Number two, using the best technology to reduce their emissions and actually sharing that information and oversight with the community. Using the best fugitive dust control plans and knowing that if you can’t keep your emissions down, you need to lower your operations. But there is no safe amount of acrolein or formaldehyde that could put into a community.”

Dogwood Alliance lists several solutions it would like Enviva to implement at each of its plants, including:

  • Putting in place best practices for trucks entering and exiting operational sites to reduce noise, traffic and fugitive dust 
  • Stopping nighttime operations between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. as well as sourcing from bottomland hardwood forests or river swamps 
  • Establishing a Good Neighbor Fund to include air purifiers and monitors for local communities, pressure washing houses and cars for dust, new health centers near sourcing locations, clean water infrastructure for surrounding communities 
  • Ceasing all government grants and subsidies for its products 
  • Ceasing all production expansion 

Enviva officials reported that the Epes facility will be in service by mid-2024 and fully ramped within two years.

Joshua LeBerte is a news intern for Alabama Public Radio.
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