New wood pellet plant proposed for Lumberton, area already home to multiple pollution sources

Photo of wood pellets

Trees are ground into wood pellets, which are then shipped to the United Kingdom, where they are burned for fuel, emitting carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the air. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Note: There have been questions about the difference between company’s projected tonnage of 400,000 tons per year by 2021 and the amount listed in the article. The 39,420 figure came from the best official source I had at the time. The draft air permit is not yet posted on the Division of Air Quality’s website, so the final amount is not yet public.

Active Energy Group, a publicly traded British company, has applied to the state Division of Air Quality to build and operate a wood pellet plant in Lumberton, raising environmental justice issues for the largely Native American community.

If approved, the facility would annually produce 39,420 oven-dried tons of wood pellets, sourced from forests in North Carolina and the Southeast, at a plant located at 1885 Alamac Road. From there, the pellets would be shipped to the United Kingdom and Europe, where they would be burned instead of coal. Even though wood pellets generate large amounts of carbon dioxide when burned, Europe and the UK are using them ostensibly to help attain their renewable energy goals.

The Active Energy plant in Lumberton is near several pollution sources. NC Department of Environmental Quality’s Community Mapping Tool lists at least a dozen:

  • The Town of Lumberton’s solid waste landfill;
  • Two inactive hazardous waste sites;
  • Three above-ground storage tank incidents;
  • Two closed coal ash structural fill sites;
  • One unlined landfill;
  • Duke Energy’s former Weatherspoon plant, where the coal ash is being excavated;
  • A brownfields site, where solvents had been detected in the groundwater;
  • And a NC Renewable Power plant, a major pollutant source that burns poultry litter and wood waste; DAQ recently cited the facility for three exceedances of nitrogen oxide in 2018.

Other polluting facilities in Robeson County include the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and a related compressor station, as well as a liquified natural gas plant operated by Piedmont Natural Gas.

According to federal data 1,633 people live within the census tract of the proposed wood pellet facility. Two-thirds of the population is non-white; nearly a third are below the federal poverty line. The area also has higher rates of heart disease, stroke and hospitalizations from asthma than the state average.

The wood pellet industry has framed the fuel source as “renewable.” However, as Policy Watch has previously reported, the science shows that every step of wood pellet production carries significant environmental and climate consequences.

When trees are timbered from North Carolina forests, they exhale carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, into the air. Replanting cannot keep pace with the timbering in terms of the carbon dioxide balance. Once abroad, when wood pellets are burned, they produce more carbon dioxide than coal, further contributing to climate change. In turn, those changes cause extreme weather, like Hurricane Florence, which devastated eastern and southeastern North Carolina in 2016 and 2018.

In fact, Hurricane Matthew in 2016 reportedly compelled Alamac American Knits to close its facility the following year. Ironically, Active Energy, bought the Alamac Knits building,  the Laurinburg Exchange reported in April 2019.

The EPA has also sacrificed science on wood pellets and instead caved into industry pressure, according to former EPA Science Advisory Board member and Duke University Professor Bill Schlesinger. He discussed on his blog that as a SAB subcommittee deliberated wood-as-renewable-energy, then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced  that the agency considered woody biomass to be carbon neutral. “He had ignored the SAB process and what the SAB might have reported from a scientific analysis of the issue,” Schlesinger wrote. “I can’t say there is evidence that politics were involved—such as lobbying by the forest products industry—but it sure looked like it. Make America Great Again by harvesting trees.”

A separate company Enviva already operates four facilities in North Carolina, all of them in or near communities of color or low-income neighborhoods: Garysburg, Hamlet, Faison and Ahoskie.

The Active Energy facility would use its proprietary CoalSwitch technology. According to the company website, CoalSwitch treats the wood to remove most of the soluble mineral contaminants, lowering its production costs but still producing “top shelf products that command a substantial premium over other biomass-derived products.”

A public meeting hosted by DAQ is tentatively scheduled for Monday, March 16, 2020 at the Bill Sapp Recreation Center, 1100 N. Cedar St., Lumberton, at 6 pm.


  1. Common Man

    February 14, 2020 at 8:33 am

    Check the numbers, their website suggests 400,000 tons, not 39,000…factor of 10x

  2. Lisa Sorg

    February 14, 2020 at 10:23 am

    Draft state documents list the amount as 39K, which is what I used instead of the company figures, since the agency is in charge of drafting the permit.

  3. Please correct

    February 15, 2020 at 6:18 am

  4. Mr. Meyagi

    February 15, 2020 at 7:05 am

    I imagine it would be hard getting a Air permit for 400k tons anywhere. As far as wood pellets having “high Co2”. Depends where you go in the USA then i guess? 1st created out of waste mill material (also a Renewable resource) Yale university considers pellets green energy. Ive made pellets for years (granted high density pellets) but ive only heard Wood pellets are low Co2. I couldnt even see my exhaust on my personal stove. I dont see how you can say that with no proof? You feel theyre high in Co2?

  5. Lisa Sorg

    February 15, 2020 at 7:29 am

    Wood pellets are not low CO2; this is not my “feeling,” but science. As for Yale, this story does not consider them green energy: https://e360.yale.edu/features/wood_pellets_green_energy_or_new_source_of_co2_emissions
    There is a huge difference between what you use in your personal stove and what occurs on an industrial scale. The fact that you can’t see the exhaust doesn’t make the emissions safe. In fact, particulate matter, particularly PM 2.5 (microns) is invisible, burrows deeply in to the lungs and can cause serious respiratory and heart illness.

  6. Lisa Sorg

    February 15, 2020 at 7:30 am

    Biomass magazine is an industry publication, not a news source.

  7. Dave church

    February 15, 2020 at 7:47 am

    You have people who keep driving this climate change propaganda causing extreme weather problems.why don’t they look at the real problem such as chemical spraying of our atmosphere 24/7 and if that’s not bad enough you have HAARP weather modification being used to generate and control our weather this is all public record on usaf website.This carbon footprint and global warming is all about them getting rich at our expense All Gore pet project.

  8. Steven W Kluesner

    February 15, 2020 at 10:37 am

    Wood pellets are not a PERFECT answer that’s clear enough but as to a comparison to burning coal I think you left out a few things. Coal generates quite a few byproducts many of which can be very Long Term environmentally detrimental and highly carcinogenic. You mentioned in your article nitrogen oxide , there’s mercury , and a variety of other compounds associated with burning coal. You might also consider that CO2 generated in conjunction with other compounds by different operative sources does not always have the same amount of impact ; unit per unit when one considers the “bigger picture” . While I appreciate your intention and effort toward real improvement , I am still left with an outlook that more complete profiles on the issue(s) at hand might be more beneficial to your/our cause. Thank you.

  9. Paul Ferris

    February 15, 2020 at 1:22 pm

    Interesting burn test results there….seems that the aeg pellet is a far superior than regular white pellet which is used in most biomass plants. Interesting.

  10. Andy Bufton

    February 17, 2020 at 6:48 am

    Might I point out that the picture published to support the article is not the material developed by AEG but a material with quite different characteristics. Clarification of the purpose of this image might be useful to the reader.
    Kind regards

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