Wood Pellet Plants in Job-Hungry Southern Towns Prompt Environmentalists’ Warnings

Enviva owns and operates eight wood pellet plants in the Southeast, including this one in Northampton, North Carolina. (Source: Southern Environmental Law Center)

This is the first in a series of four stories about how changing weather patterns are and will affect the Black Belt.

The tiny West Alabama town of Epes, population 172, is set to play a role in the international climate-change battle. The initiative that has reached Epes is spreading across the state and much of the South and is prompting debate about whether it is progress or problem.

Maryland-based Enviva is building a $175 million facility at Epes to produce wood pellets from forests, sawmills and other sources and to load them on barges at the nearby port on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway bound for the United Kingdom, Europe and potentially Asia.

The pellets will be burned for electric power in plants formerly fueled by coal.

In 2009, the European Commission directed its member countries to use renewable sources of power for at least 20% of its electricity production in order to reduce carbon emissions and meet climate change goals. The commission categorized wood as a carbon-neutral alternative to coal on the belief trees would be replaced one-to-one with seedlings that eventually would grow and absorb the carbon dioxide released in creating power.

Wood instead of coal – a good thing for the world, right?

Not so fast. Most environmental and clean-energy advocates, including the Southern Environmental Law Center, say the carbon-neutral assessments are based on faulty initial assumptions, are not the clean power source as touted by industry, and shouldn’t be grouped with solar, wind and nuclear power as ways to replace fossil fuels and drastically reduce the world’s carbon emissions.

It’s much better, they say, to keep carbon sequestered in trees than to burn them for fuel.

That’s important because the world shows no sign of leveling off its heat-trapping atmospheric emissions, according to November’s annual assessment of climate goals by the United Nations Environment Program. Under the Paris climate agreement, countries pledged to keep global warming under 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century to avoid the worst effects of warming. But last year, global carbon dioxide emissions actually rose 1.7 percent, the report concluded.

Environmentalists make the case that cutting and burning a pine tree releases all the carbon it had built up over a 40-year lifetime, but a replacement seedling won’t reach its full potential to absorb carbon for 10 years “and then 30 years to really have absorbed all the carbon it can absorb,” Marie Noëlle Keijzer, cofounder and CEO of nonprofit WeForest said in an article in Wired.  “So you don’t want to compare a new tree with an existing tree.”

William Moomaw, lead author on five Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, told the New York Times’ Climate Forward newsletter this month that a tree planted this year won’t sequester carbon for the next decade, a period said to be critical for climate action. “They just don’t absorb enough carbon dioxide,” Moomaw said. “They aren’t big enough.”

Enviva is the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturer and the biggest supplier to the U.K. power behemoth Drax. The Epes plant is expected to produce 1.2 million tons of product annually.

Plant Operators Say They’re Choosy About the Wood They Use

Enviva, which operates eight plants in the South with more on the way, counters that it promises the wood it uses for pellets will not be from clear-cut tree stands but, instead, sourced from the thinning of plantation forests and low-grade fiber from sawmills and other wood industry manufacturers.

Yana Kravtsova, vice president for environmental affairs, pledged that Enviva would take wood fiber “only from owners who commit to sustain their forests, not convert them to other uses (such as agriculture or development).”

Kravtsova said the public could see where the wood comes from, its origin in forest or sawmill, and procurement activities on the company’s website.

But one recent assessment of the carbon life-cycle of the United Kingdom’s largest power provider – Drax Power Station – concluded that burning the pellets increases carbon in the atmosphere for more than four decades.

Drax sources pellets from Enviva and other providers in the Southeast as well as its own facilities in Louisiana, Mississippi and elsewhere, according to the report, commissioned by The National Wildlife Federation and the Southern Environmental Law Center.

David Carr Jr., an attorney for the nonprofit law center, said the assertion that wood pellets are carbon-neutral “came from a cover-your-eyes assumption that it’s mainly waste wood that’s used – just material decomposing and going into the atmosphere anyway. But despite those claims, we’ve found only up to 20% comes from sawmill residue and most comes from standing trees that take decades to grow back.”

Based on the carbon-neutral assumption, the UK is spending the equivalent of billions of dollars – almost $1.2 billion in 2018 alone – to subsidize Drax’s conversion of electrical energy production from coal to wood pellets. Drax is pushing to extend those subsidies beyond a 2027 end date, and environmentalists are trying to put an end to the government support.

“We are also trying to address this accounting flaw that allows Drax to count emissions at the smokestack as zero, even though we know they have emitted 56 million tons of carbon over the past five years,” Carr said.

There are other potentially negative consequences from the wood pellet industry. Although Enviva officials have said it plans regular inspections of its wood sources to make sure they are replanted, some organizations and independent journalists found that manufacturers have clear-cut forests, including harvesting bottomland hardwoods that take more than 50 years to grow back. They also found that destruction of this type disrupts wildlife habitat and threatens biodiversity.

Enviva’s eight plants in the Southeast have ports on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. It is constructing a deep-water marine terminal in Pascagoula, Mississippi, the destination for wood pellets from Epes and its Mississippi facility.

Click on map for list of details about each plant. (Source: Southern Environmental Law Center)

The wood pellet industry is booming in Alabama and across the South, from North Carolina to Texas. Three industrial wood pellet plants currently operate in Alabama – Mohegan Renewable Energy (formerly Lee Energy Solutions) in Crossville, Zilkha Biomass in Selma, and Pinnacle Holdings in partnership with Westervelt Renewable Energy in Aliceville.

Enviva plans to construct two more Alabama plants, in Childersburg and Abbeville, and Pinnacle recently announced it would build, jointly with Westervelt, a $99 million facility in Demopolis.

Jobs or the Environment?

The contention that the wood pellet industry is harming the world by releasing carbon safely stored in forests doesn’t register much with the economically strapped residents of Sumter and surrounding West Alabama counties.

About 200 people attended a public hearing in November in the county seat of Livingston to weigh in on Enviva’s draft air permit, and of 21 who spoke, only two raised concerns, and neither was a resident of the area.

Sumter County residents pack the Livingston Community Center to, mostly, support Enviva’s air pollution permit for a a $175 million facility at Epes to produce wood pellets. (Source: Hank Black)

Earlier that day, a diner at Touch of Home Mennonite Bakery, a popular Livingston lunch spot, volunteered that he had just encountered the “very first person I’ve met who was not all for Enviva coming in.”

Few in Sumter County seemed to care that the new facility will emit fine particulate matter, volatile organic compounds and other regulated pollutants into the surrounding atmosphere. Residents said they are counting on the resource-strapped Alabama Department of Environmental Management to adequately monitor the plant’s emissions.

The nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project keeps a close eye on how various Southeastern states regulate those toxic compounds as they issue air permits under the federal Clean Air Act.

Patrick Anderson, an attorney for the project, said it has studied federal and state permits for 21 wood pellet plants in the South and released a report last year that found 11 of them either failed to keep emissions below legal limits or had not installed pollution control technology required by regulations. The industry had an early history of underestimating emission levels, according to Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Heather Hillaker.

The watchdog efforts have paid off, according to Anderson and Hillaker. Legal and administrative actions brought by environmentalists have forced companies to include more and better pollution controls.

The Epes plant is expected to use mostly softwood, such as pine.

“Normally, use of that much softwood and at that high of a production rate, the facility would be highly emitting of both volatile organic compounds, hazardous pollutants and particulate matter,” Hillaker said, “but Enviva is proactively installing proper controls in acknowledgement of our insistence that they would be violating the Clean Air Act if they didn’t. That is a definite improvement we’ve seen, even though these are still large amounts (of pollutants) for these local communities.”

In fact, based on objections raised by the Environmental Integrity Project, Southern Environmental Law Center and clean-air advocacy group Gasp, based in Birmingham, ADEM strengthened the Epes plant’s air permit to require additional emissions testing on the silos where the finished product is stored.

The final permit was approved Nov. 25, clearing the way for Enviva to begin construction of the plant this year, with completion anticipated in 2021.

The only apparent opposition to the Epes plant came from graphic designer Michele Hagood of Livingston. She created a Facebook page, “Save Our Sumter-Stop Enviva,” that garnered little but ill-will from the community, she said.

Hagood, who suffers from asthma, said emissions from the plant and dust from pellet processing and trucks needed to transport wood for the facility would harm people with cardiovascular disease and lung conditions.

“The company will create jobs,” she acknowledged, “but people don’t understand that most will be highly technical; we don’t have the skill set here for them, so most will go to people commuting in. I don’t want to see people’s health destroyed by the dust and bad air.”

Michael Hansen, executive director of Gasp, was at the Sumter County hearing. He said in a statement later, “While the wood biomass industry masquerades as ‘renewable energy,’ these plants are releasing tons of pollution into the air we breathe. The least we can ask for is a strong, enforceable permit.”

Margaret Shields of the Gaston community is one of many cheerleaders for the Enviva project. She discounted effects on the climate.

“I don’t know about that,” she said, “but I do know we got to have jobs because there’s not much else here.”

“We have to give our young people reason to stay here,” said a pastor who delivered the invocation at the hearing. The county lost 7.8% of its 2010 population and now has 12,691 residents, according to government figures.

(Source: The Alabama Forestry Commission)

There’s no doubt that there is sufficient timber in the area to supply the plant. There are 23 million acres of inventory in the state, 42% of it mostly pine trees, according to the Alabama Forestry Commission. In the past 47 years, the amount of softwood timber has risen 82%, hardwood has increased 99%, and the total of all timber has risen 91 percent in a five-county area including Sumter.

The tree stock has increased sharply over the past decade as the result of diminished homebuilding in the wake of the Great Recession and the collapse of the newspaper industry. But that, in turn, has depressed pine pulpwood prices.

Hillaker also noted the high minority and low-income demographics of Sumter County. “We’ve seen a lot of wood pellet plants tend to be located in what would be considered environmental justice communities,” she said. This jibes with research published last year in the journal Environmental Justice that found that such production is 50% more likely to be located in counties where the poverty level is above the state median and at least 25% of the population is nonwhite.

Almost three-fourths of the population of Sumter County is African American and the median household income is $21,663, according to the latest government figures.

Gasp’s Michael Hansen added, “Wealthy landowners who can sell their timber to (Enviva) will be the ones who benefit the most, while poor and black residents will be left breathing dirty air.”

More stories in the series

Sunday: In West Alabama, Life Is Hard. Warmer Weather Forecasts Worse Problems

Monday: Audubon Study Finds Warming Climate May Be Inhospitable to Alabama State Bird

Thursday: Cattle, Catfish, and Cover Crops. Alabama Farms Play Role in Slowing Climate Change