As the world warms, and as communities across the globe organize to address widespread environmental damage, the issue of environmental justice has gained new urgency. A toxic mix of politics, economics and racism means that the damage done by pollution often weighs most heavily on the world’s most vulnerable communities. Environmental justice efforts target the root causes of the damage, identify its disparate impacts, and chart paths to restoration.
Environmental justice is fueled by empowered communities that have the skills and knowledge to identify environmental risks, hold polluters accountable, and work with stakeholders to improve the health of residents and communities.
Charlotte’s Historic West End
Clean Air Carolina’s first effort to partner with a community in this actionable, contributory way began in Charlotte’s Historic West End, as part of our AirKeepers program. Residents of this historically African American community live with a longstanding legacy of industrial zoning and highway construction that continues to pollute the air in their neighborhoods.
Yet despite this high concentration of emission sources, residents lacked the data to show they were breathing disproportionately dirty air. Air pollution can vary greatly from one neighborhood to the next. The air quality data produced by the nearest monitoring station didn’t reflect what Historic West End residents were really breathing.
For four years Clean Air Carolina has been working closely with community leaders such as Ron Ross, Mattie Marshall, and William Hughes (pictured right), and other residents to provide advocacy training and to monitor local air quality using both mobile and stationary air monitors. This AirKeeper partnership was originally funded by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.
These monitoring efforts led to a report that documented the elevated pollution risks in the area and proposed potential solutions. Community leaders are now calling for the establishment of a Clean Air Corridor that reduces local sources of air pollution in the neighborhood.
This work has led to real changes. In 2019 Historic West End residents were invited by the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners to present the community-level air quality data they’ve collected. Before the presentation ended, the Commission committed to establishing an official air monitoring station in the Historic West End. That monitor is now up and running!
Clean Air Carolina staff will continue working to support the Historic West End communities, as well as seeking to expand our efforts and our understanding of environmental justice work.
Wood Pellet Industry
Enviva, the world’s largest manufacturer of wood pellets for biofuel, has expanded rapidly throughout rural North Carolina, clearcutting old-growth forests to produce wood pellets that they ship overseas. The demand is driven by a European Union policy that incorrectly treats wood biomass pollution as “carbon neutral.” This is a myth. Numerous studies have shown that burning wood pellets for electricity is dirtier than both coal and natural gas.
Enviva’s local air emissions also have devastating health impacts on surrounding communities. Wood pellet production releases large amounts of hazardous air pollutants, including Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Breathing in VOCs has been associated with serious health problems, including asthma, cardiovascular disease, and low birthweight.
In 2019 Clean Air Carolina, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Environmental Integrity Project, won a negotiated settlement with Enviva Hamlet and the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Thanks to our legal challenge, Enviva was required to install pollution controls to reduce VOC emissions from a key unit of their Hamlet plant by 95 percent.
Richmond County, where the Hamlet plant was located, already faces some of the worst health outcomes in North Carolina. The new pollution controls required by this settlement will protect everyone who lives and works in Hamlet from additional sources of air pollution. This is a huge win for the families of Richmond County who deserve to breathe clean, healthy air.
Clean Air Carolina will use this victory as the foundation to continue holding Enviva and other wood pellet manufacturers responsible for their impacts on local communities.