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.

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