Environmental advocates discuss wood pellet industry’s impact on humans and the environment

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Environmental advocacy groups gathered Friday to discuss the impact of the wood pellet industry on climate and public health during a boat ride on the Cape Fear River in Wilmington.

People from groups including the Rachel Carson Council, Carolina Wetlands Association, NAACP, Alliance for Cape Fear Trees, Wood Pellet Forum, Cape Fear Sierra Club, and Clean Air Carolina attended.

Dr. Kyle Horton, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, was also in attendance.

The boat travelled past wood pellet dome silos maintained by Enviva, a company that bills itself as the world's largest producer of wood pellets on its website.

Wood pellets are made from trees and used by people and companies to burn for energy and heat.

Alexandra Wisner, assistant director for the Rachel Carson Council, said wood pellet production and use is harmful to humans and the environment without a justifiable benefit to the local economy.

"Unfortunately, it's been found that wood pellets actually are worse than coal to burn," said Wisner. "The wood pellet processing plants themselves are emitting really terrible particulate matter. That's little particulates in the air when you breathe them in (that) can cause different things like asthma or aggravate asthma."

Enviva responded to a list of questions sent by WECT through email.

"As an alternative to coal, wood pellets help heat generators and power producers reduce their carbon footprint up to 85 percent on a life cycle basis, often without undergoing major renovations to their existing structures," a spokesperson wrote.

Wisner said wood pellets are produced in the US and exported to European countries to bypass environmental regulations there.

"Realistically, they are not benefiting North Carolinians at all from an economic perspective," said Wisner. "And on top of that, they're harming our environment while allowing Europe to gain all of these benefits from a global perspective."

Wisner said noise and air pollution is also a cause for concern for residents living near the silos.

"It's primarily poor communities of color, and that's pretty standard for a lot of environment problems in NC," said Wisner.

Roberta Penn, a resident of the Sunset Park neighborhood, said noise pollution and traffic related to the silos and wood pellet production is aggravating.

"The noise is unbelievable from the domes, although it's difficult to find out exactly what's making the noise," said Penn. "It sounds like a conveyor. Enviva is allowed to run 23 out of 24 hours a day."

Penn said she wishes the industrial sounds would be reduced.

"Nobody wants to claim ownership of the noise that is keeping people awake," Penn said. "That is scaring people. It's really destructive to our quality of life."

Enviva did not directly respond to questions about noise pollution concerns of those who live near their facility and silos in the Port of Wilmington.

"We work very closely with neighbors in the communities in which we live and work to mitigate issues," a spokesperson wrote. "We welcome and encourage this neighbor to reach out to us directly."

Dr. Robert Parr, a medical air quality advocate on the boat ride, said he worries about air pollution produced by wood pellet production.

"Right now, the wood pellet plants in North Carolina and others are avoiding the strictest air quality technology," said Parr. "They are releasing far in excess particulate matter, volatile organic acids, and they have a direct impact on the surrounding populations."

Parr said a wood pellet plant in Sampson County is avoiding air quality detection technology, and is also surrounded by a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), adding a double hit in emissions to residents.

"This is an environmental justice issue because these plants are all in the counties that have some of the worst health statistics in North Carolina," said Parr. "Every step of the process is releasing chemicals into the air that is impacting the population."

Enviva said it is working to reduce particulate matter it creates.

"Our company is committed to minimizing fugitive dust generated by our plants," a spokesperson wrote. "Including by not only continuing to comply with all applicable environmental regulations and but also by taking additional steps beyond those required by the regulations."

Another point of debate between advocates and the company is where the wood is sourced to produce the pellets.

Wisner said wood pellet production contributes to deforestation, which in turn increases carbon emissions in the atmosphere and that contributes to global temperature increases.

Enviva issued this response when asked if it creates wood pellets from clear-cutting forests in North Carolina:

The wood that Enviva takes is the lowest-quality wood from a given sawtimber harvest, meaning that forests are not managed to produce wood for pellets. Only 2.7% of wood harvested in the South goes to the wood pellet industry; the rest is used for sawtimber and pulp & paper products. Forest owners are rational, economic actors and want to produce as much sawtimber as possible to maximize their revenue per acre, and sawtimber is worth many multiples of what pulpwood is worth.

Horton said she is concerned about the wood pellet industry in North Carolina.

"Industries like this are risking public health. They're risking the quality of our air, and the cleanliness of our water," said Horton. "I really want to make sure as we are developing our economy and bringing jobs here into eastern North Carolina that we do it in a way that is sensitive to keeping everyone healthy."

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