Can’t See the Forest for the Trees
LUMBERTON, NORTH CAROLINA – In June 2020, hundreds of residents converged on this old shipping town on the Lumber River to attend a virtual hearing on a proposed wood pellet facility owned by Active Energy Renewable Power. The hearing was part of the state’s air quality permit requirements that include disclosure of the manufacturing process and emissions estimates.
Among the many people opposed to the plant was Shalonda Regan, 34, who has lived her whole life two miles from the site, in the majority-Black neighborhood of South Lumberton.
“Any industry can come in and do as they wish,” says Regan, who regularly passes the plant on her jogs. “We don’t really know how harmful it is until we’re actually affected.”
Regan, who suffers from asthma, worries about the toxic chemicals emitted by a manufacturing process that puts razed trees through a chipper and compresses them into pellets, which are then sold to companies that incinerate the wood bits to generate energy. The industry considers this an energy source made from renewable organic material, known commonly as biomass.
Proponents, who herald wood pellets as a renewable energy on par with wind and solar power, argue that the fuel combats climate change by helping to phase out power producers such as coal-burning plants. But environmental activists criticize the wood pellet trade as a dirty industry that cuts down forests and contributes to global warming.
Lumberton’s wood pellet plant, which is built but not yet operational, would be the fifth in North Carolina, the largest exporter of wood pellets in the nation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The other four are owned by Enviva Biomass, the world’s largest producer of industrial wood pellets.
Like the proposed plant in Lumberton, much of the “green energy” manufacturing in the South is disproportionally located in communities of color that are already saddled with major air pollution. According to the state Department of Environmental Quality’s mapping system, 90 percent of the 1,700 residents who live in the vicinity of the Lumberton site are people of color, many of them Native American (the Lumbee community is prevalent here). According to U.S. census data from July 2019, the most recent available, two-thirds are low-income. Also, the plant sits within two miles of three public schools, various public-housing complexes, religious institutions, and the county’s public library.
Other North Carolina residents who live near wood pellet facilities complain about the tons of hazardous air pollutants being emitted, the raining down of sawdust from burning wood, and the noise from the roar of 18-wheelers carrying logs at all hours.
The new plant would be among the first to use Active Energy’s patented CoalSwitch technology, which converts forest waste like bark and treetops into pellets—as opposed to the compressed wood particles from cut trees the industry says it uses—to produce high-bulk-density pellets.
In theory, this could protect woodland areas. But environmental organization Dogwood Alliance has shown that other wood pellet facilities have razed whole forests to meet production quotas. And CoalSwitch pellets can be used in existing coal-fired power plants, potentially saving the companies that use them millions of dollars in retrofitting. But the process, which includes the use of steam to explode and pressure-cook the pellets in a reactor and dryer, is so new that promised emissions levels are mere estimates.
According to Active Energy’s modified permit application submitted in April, projected emissions more than double those estimated in its original application. As originally reported by NC Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg, “the facility is projected to emit about 25 tons of volatile organic compounds each year, well above the threshold of 5 tons to qualify for a permit exemption. Based on modeling of emissions data from two Enviva wood pellet plants in North Carolina, Active Energy would also emit nearly 2.5 tons of hazardous air pollutants annually, as well as smaller amounts of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter.”
The company is using Lumberton as a “testing ground,” says Regan, treating communities of color like “guinea pigs.”
Neither Active Energy nor the Robeson County Economic Development department responded to a request for comment.
THE LUCRATIVE WOOD PELLET INDUSTRY, which emerged some 15 years ago, generates about $10 billion a year in revenue, mainly from Europe, where it accounts for nearly 60 percent of Europe’s renewable-energy consumption. (The overall global biomass power market was valued at $51 billion in 2020.) U.S. sales to Europe were $981 million in 2020, according to an annual report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service. Global wood pellet exports more than tripled from two million tons in 2012 to over six million tons in 2019.
The industry argues that wood pellets are a carbon-neutral source, cleaner than coal, and a sustainable alternative, because the trees grow back.
That’s what Will Gardiner, CEO of U.K.-based Drax, the world’s largest consumer of wood pellets for energy, argued at the 2019 U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP25). “It’s absolutely better to use biomass than coal,” he said. “Fundamentally, we are part of a system that is helping forests to regrow and prosper.”
But “it doesn’t quite work out that way,” explains Sara Maxwell, an independent scholar affiliated with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who studies political ecology. “When you cut down the trees, it takes them 20 years to grow back. In North Carolina, it’s usually slash pine. So, you have a 20-year lag built into this industry of having less carbon being stored, of having less oxygen being synthesized.”
As Donna Chavis, senior campaigner with the national environmental organization Friends of the Earth, put it: “While the final product may have come from a source of nature, it’s not a nature-based solution. It’s a false solution.”
In the run-up to the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, this November, the question of whether wood pellets are renewable will continue to be a source of heated debate. European countries aiming to cut emissions in half by 2030 are relying on wood pellets to meet their renewable-energy and emission reduction targets.
The European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive recognizes burning wood pellets as a zero-emission energy source. But in 2018, hundreds of scientists signed a letter to the European Parliament sounding the alarm about the dangers posed by burning wood, and this July the EU, while still considering biomass carbon-neutral, amended its energy directive to limit certain forests and types of wood. Scientists in the U.S. sent a similar letter to President Joe Biden in February. Even North Carolina’s 2019 Clean Energy Plan rejects biomass as a source of clean energy, noting that its purported “carbon neutrality and accounting methods are contentious issues.”
Active Energy has attempted to sell the Lumberton plant as a generator of good paying jobs. The company told NC Policy Watch that it received a $500,000 state economic-development subsidy for promising 50 jobs in an economically depressed community, hollowed out after many industries fled the area in the 1990s to seek cheaper labor abroad. “Anytime you mention jobs, people are going to think, ‘Oh my God, this is the greatest thing ever,’” said Regan.
But activists question the benefit. “If a job is going to harm you physically, is it really a good job?” asks environmental activist Jeff Currie, a member of the Lumbee tribe who serves as riverkeeper for the nonprofit organization Winya Rivers Alliance. “If it’s not going to pay you a living wage, is it really a good job?”
PRESIDENT BIDEN’S POLICY FOCUS on moving away from fossil fuels without destroying jobs has created conditions for these market-based solutions, in which companies are vying for federal grants and state subsidies, making fungible what counts as a renewable source of energy. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed by the U.S. Senate in August includes $8 billion to develop “clean hydrogen,” which releases large amounts of emissions by burning fossil gas.
The bill also provides waivers for climate-damaging activities like logging, spraying pesticides, and building fossil fuel pipelines through federal and tribal lands. Other corporate-friendly loopholes include watering down environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, and limiting environmental review of proposals and public feedback, which is particularly important for majority-Black and Indigenous residents in places like Robeson County.
“The sun is renewable because you aren’t destroying it,” said Mac Legerton, co-director of Robeson County Cooperative for Sustainable Development.
Chavis doesn’t give plaudits to Biden for mere talk about a just transition. “I don’t give Biden the kind of report card that I read in the paper,” she said, referring to lack of action on environmental legislation, including the THRIVE Act and Environmental Justice for All Act. “In some ways, he’s taking us back to square one, which is where we were before the last administration came in. Where are we going to go from there?”
While the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality approved Active Energy’s application, more than one year later the opening is delayed, as the company fends off a lawsuit filed by the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center. Currie and Regan are among the litigants in the lawsuit.
The suit claims Active Energy violated state laws and the federal Clean Water Act by discharging wastewater into the Lumber River without the proper permits. Additionally, Active Energy is now scrambling to correct violations to its air quality permit after inspectors found the company had redesigned the pellets process and altered emissions controls.
The outcry over the Lumberton plant is also rooted in concerns over climate change. Deforestation releases stored carbon into the atmosphere, and when cut trees are used for the production of wood pellets, additional emissions are created. According to the Rainforest Alliance, deforestation causes about 10 percent of the worldwide emissions that contribute to climate change. In North Carolina alone, Enviva Biomass cuts down 60,000 acres of trees annually—enough to release four million tons of carbon dioxide a year.
Currie says that razing trees contributes to increasing flooding in the state, as deforestation destroys the land’s natural ability to absorb the overflow from torrential rains. “The pellet industry,” Currie says, “is worsening [the damage] by cutting in low-lying areas in eastern North Carolina that are very wet … And when you cut trees in those areas, they don’t hold water the same way.”
Lumberton is a target for hurricanes flooding the Carolinas with increasing frequency, including this summer’s damaging storms Elsa, Fred, and Ida. Hurricane Matthew in 2016 was a major contributing factor to the closing of Alamac American, a textile manufacturer formerly on the site of the proposed Active Energy plant. In 2018, Hurricane Florence killed 15 people in North Carolina and devastated Lumberton. By 2050, storms in North Carolina are projected to increase inland flooding events by 40 percent.
In a town where evidence of Florence and other storms remains, no one interviewed had been left unscathed. Plywood boards hammered over windows hang like empty canvases. At the abandoned West Lumberton Elementary School, books and papers remain scattered on desks. The clock on the wall stopped working long ago.
Jermaine Ballantine, 42, a father of two who lives near the school, reports that wildlife has taken over abandoned homes. “Snakes have moved into empty houses,” he frets on a warm Saturday in August, as he prepared to move to a new home about 20 miles away. “We have mice. We have extra wasps. We have ants that moved into the walls of the home … The walls are breaking down, the steps are breaking down, you name it, and it’s breaking down because of the moisture.”
Ballantine is one of many residents who are seeking to start anew. According to U.S. census estimates, Robeson County’s population declined by 13.1 percent from 2010 to 2020, a loss of 17,638 residents—with 14,000 of that in 2019.
“The best thing to do is to move out of here,” agrees lifelong Lumberton resident George Leon Edwards, 87, speaking from a swing on the porch of his remodeled house.
As new extractive industries like biomass encroach on communities across North Carolina, Lumberton residents find that time is running out for real climate solutions.
Anita Cunningham, program director of the Robeson County Cooperative for Sustainable Development, moved to Lumberton three days before Hurricane Florence hit, and was trapped in her mother’s house for four days with water up to her knees. Her clothes, at a storage facility, turned to mush. The pellet plant, she says, is “an attack on our livelihood and safety—the basic rights of living a clean, healthy life in an environment that is not toxic.”
Luis Feliz Leon is an organizer, journalist, and independent scholar in social-movement history making good trouble in New York City.
Co-published with The American Prospect.