by Daniel Parkhurst
This month Clean Air Carolina, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), won a settlement with Enviva Hamlet and the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that will result in a 95% reduction in dangerous emissions from a key unit at the Enviva Hamlet facility. This is the kind of win we work for: protecting air quality and public health, especially in towns like Hamlet and Dobbins Heights.
This victory is about more than just a single pollution control. This is a serious step forward in our efforts to protect North Carolina communities from the rapidly expanding wood pellet industry, which doesn’t receive near enough press considering its detrimental effects on our forests, our public health, and our climate.
Dirtier Than Coal
Anyone who has sat by a campfire knows that wood doesn’t burn cleanly, and this is doubly true for wood pellets. While they may look like rabbit feed, their production is an extractive industry that is exporting our forests overseas to power other countries. North Carolina’s forests, typically old growth and hardwood, are cut down and replaced with fast growth, plantation style, yellow pine. These trees are then sent to one of four wood pellet facilities in the state. The manufacturing process releases large amounts of air pollutants – primarily Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), Particulate Matter (PM), and Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs), which are associated with a plethora health problems, including anxiety, depression, low birth weight, premature birth, asthma, respiratory illness, and cardiovascular disease.
After production, these wood pellets are shipped overseas, primarily to the United Kingdom, where they are burned in old coal plants, that have been converted to produce electricity from biomass. This conversion increases levels of dangerous small particles (PM) by over 135%, the equivalent of adding 3 million new diesel cars on the road.
So why use a fuel that is pound for pound dirtier than coal and produces 285% more carbon dioxide than natural gas? Currently, the renewable energy standards of the European Union classify wood pellets as “carbon neutral” since they are sourced from trees. But to responsibly source wood pellets we must harvest them exclusively from forest by-products and residues. Think leftovers from sawmills, grasses, or other wood that is already on the forest floor. Once we start cutting down living trees, wood pellet production actually increases greenhouse gas emissions and destroys forests that act as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon from the air.
This doesn’t even take into account the emissions produced by transporting wood pellets overseas.
What We Breathe Matters
If exacerbating climate change wasn’t bad enough, wood pellet production also endangers the public health of communities living next to these plants.
Converting living trees into wood pellets is a 5-part process that releases harmful air pollutants at every step along the way:
- Trees are first harvested and processed, which involves cutting, debarking, and chipping the wood. This releases VOCs and PM.
- The wood is then dried, releasing VOCs, PM, and HAPs, as well as Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) and Greenhouse Gases (GHG).
- Next, the wood is crushed into smaller pieces and compressed into wood pellets. This releases VOCs, PM, and HAPs.
- The pellets are then cooled, during which they emit even more VOCs, PM, and HAPs.
- Finally, the wood pellets are shipped overseas and burned for electricity, a process emitting additional pollutants including carbon dioxide.
On their own, VOCs have numerous direct, negative health effects. When VOCs combine with NOx, however, they create ground-level ozone, a toxic air pollutant that causes serious health problems, including asthma, coughing, throat irritation, bronchitis, and even premature death. Ground-level ozone also poses a significant threat to trees and most plant species; according to the USDA, ozone causes more damage to plants than all other air pollutants combined.
Particulate Matter (PM) are very small particles – much smaller than a grain of sand or a human hair. A typical particle can include hazardous heavy metals, air toxics, and various types of carbon that cause significant inflammation in the human body. All of these health risks are amplified in vulnerable populations such as our children, our seniors, and folks already suffering from asthma and numerous other conditions.
A Right to Clean Air
For all of these reasons Clean Air Carolina fought alongside SELC and EIP to take on Enviva Hamlet and DEQ, and we won. Thanks to our successful legal challenge, Enviva must install additional pollution controls that will reduce emissions from dry hammermills at the Enviva Hamlet plant by 95%. These controls are available, practical, and extremely effective, and will directly protect public health in Hamlet, Dobbins Heights, and communities throughout Richmond County. This is especially important as Richmond County already faces some of the poorest health ratings in our state.
The wood pellet industry continues to destroy North Carolina’s forests and produce dirty fuel for energy production. Clean Air Carolina is committed to fighting against climate change and will work towards a clean energy future that is good for the health of our residents and our state. We will continue to put the public health of North Carolina first and hold polluters responsible for their actions, ensuring that everyone has access to clean, healthy air.