Settlement agreements require Enviva to install more stringent air pollution controls on wood pellet plants in Richmond, Sampson counties

Photo of wood pellets

Trees are ground into wood pellets, which are then shipped to the United Kingdom, where they are burned for fuel. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Enviva, the world’s largest manufacturer of wood pellet fuel, will install more stringent air pollution controls at two of its plants, as part of settlement agreements with the state and environmental groups.

In the first settlement agreement, Clean Air Carolina had challenged the air permit for the Hamlet plant in Richmond County that was approved by NC Department of Environmental Quality earlier this year. In court documents, Clean Air Carolina alleged that the Division of Air Quality had violated state and federal law in classifying the plant, which is under construction, as a minor source of air pollution. The environmental group, based in Charlotte, also argued that DAQ arbitrarily relied on emission estimates in Enviva’s air permit application.

As a result, Enviva would have been allowed to emit greater amounts of volatile organic compounds, as well as hazardous air pollutants, formaldehyde and methanol into the air.

Although DEQ and Enviva denied Clean Air Carolina allegations, the three parties reached a settlement agreement. The agreement requires Enviva to add air pollution controls to reduce emissions and adhere to legal limits on them. Enviva also agreed to additional record keeping and reporting conditions.

Clean Air Carolina was represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Environmental Integrity Project.

Last November concerned citizens, as well as Enviva supporters, filled an auditorium at Richmond Community College to comment on the proposed facility in Hamlet. “I ask you, DEQ,” said Daniel Parkhurst, policy manager for Clean Air Carolina, at the time, “to put the health of the families and children first.”

Within the last decade, there has been a spike in hazardous and toxic air emissions Richmond County: From roughly 100,000 pounds (50 tons) in 2010 to nearly 400,000 pounds (200 tons) in 2016, according to DEQ figures.

State regulators said the increase is occurring in part, because of ammonia emissions from natural gas plants owned by Duke Energy and by the NC Electric Membership Corporation. Other sources, such as factories, are also contributing to air pollution.

“Residents of Richmond County already face some of the worst health outcomes in our state,” said June Blotnick, executive director of Clean Air Carolina. “The new air pollution controls required by this settlement will decrease hazardous air pollutants and VOC emissions, reducing two additional threats to the communities’ health.”

More than a quarter of Richmond County residents live at or below the federal poverty threshold, compared to the state average of 17.8 percent. According to DEQ’s Environmental Justice Mapping Tool, in Richmond County rates of heart disease, stroke, infant deaths, child mortality, and cancer are all higher than the state average.

Enviva manufacturers wood pellets from trees, including hardwoods from bottomland forests. The company ships the pellets to the United Kingdom, where they are burned for fuel, instead of coal. However, burning wood pellets is not carbon neutral. There are multiple sources of carbon dioxide emissions from the wood pellet industry: When the trees are cut CO2 is released into the air; the transport of the trees and pellets by truck, rail and ship; the emissions from the factories themselves; and the release of CO2 when the pellets are burned for fuel.

The environmental damage also extends to the forests themselves. Although companies replant the trees, it is usually a monoculture of pine stands that does not support the biodiversity and habitats found in natural forests.

The second agreement involved Enviva’s wood pellet plant in Sampson County, near the towns of Faison and Clinton. In 2014 the Division of Air quality issued a permit to Enviva that did not require the company to control emissions from certain processes: pellet coolers and presses, and dry hammermills, which grind the pellets.

DAQ didn’t require emissions controls at the time because in its permit application, Enviva claimed they weren’t needed under the Clean Air Act.

However, in March of this year, DAQ determined that Enviva’s permit application was deficient. Specifically, DAQ determined the company’s analysis should have included emissions controls on the pellet coolers and presses. Although Enviva disputed DAQ’s assertion, in late May the state and the company reached a settlement agreement.

Within two years, the company is required to install and operate emissions controls on the pellet coolers and presses and dry hammer mills. In exchange, the state agreed not to pursue an enforcement action based its the March letter.

 

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