Environment

Robeson County residents tell DEQ to deny air permit for Active Energy wood pellet plant

CoalSwitch pellets (Photo: Allenby Capital)

A proposed wood pellet plant faces vehement opposition from many Robeson County residents, including elected officials, and environmental advocates, who say the facility would not only pollute the air, but also would be financially risky and environmentally unjust.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality held a virtual public hearing Monday night to receive formal comments on a draft air permit for the plant, owned and operated by Active Energy Renewable Power, in Lumberton. More than 125 people attended, and of the roughly 50 who spoke, just four asked DEQ to approve the air permit; three of them were affiliated with the company.

A subsidiary of Active Energy Group, AERP is a publicly traded British company. As Policy Watch reported in April, aided by a half-million dollars in state taxpayer money, it purchased and upgraded the old Alamac Knits factory in south Lumberton. To make its pellets, AERP would use a commercially untested technology called CoalSwitch.

While these pellets burn cleaner than coal in power plants, air emissions from their manufacturing process are only estimates, their true amounts yet unknown. AERP’s air permit application to the NC Department of Environmental Quality acknowledges that the proposed process has no precedent “to calculate air emissions from the proposed sources.”

Active Energy’s emissions projections are based on a production rate of 40,000 tons of wood pellets per year. Based on estimates — themselves questionable, because they rely on emissions from a different pellet process  — the plant will emit an estimated 56 tons of pollutants per year. These include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, greenhouse gases, formaldehyde and benzene. VOCs and NOx combined create ground-level ozone, another harmful pollutant.

 

The company has told shareholders that it expects to ramp up production to 400,000 tons annually, possibly as soon as 2021. Given that significant increase, pollutant amounts would also be expected to rise.

Nonetheless, Antonio Esposito, chief operating officer of AERP, told DEQ last night that CoalSwitch is “one of the most eco friendly processes you can use. We think the impact will be minimal on forests and communities.”

Patrick Anderson, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, said wood pellet plants have routinely lowballed their emissions.

Enviva, for example, entered into a Special Consent Order with DEQ over the company’s faulty estimates. Anderson said more information is needed on acrolein and formaldehyde emissions. “These are important steps that should not be circumvented,” Anderson said.

Heather Hillaker, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center urged DEQ to deny the permit, or at least strengthen it “to make sure AERP doesn’t evade clean air requirements.”

Without emissions modeling and additional stack testing, she said, it’s impossible to confirm AERP’s claims. Hillaker also told the agency that is should conduct a full environmental justice analysis, which is governed by federal civil rights law.

Ninety percent of people living in the same census block of the plant are from communities of color; two-thirds are low-income. Within two miles of the plant are dozens of pollution sources, including multiple poultry farms, landfills and hazardous waste sites.

DEQ must consider these cumulative impacts, said Sherri White-Williamson Environmental Justice Coordinator with the North Carolina Conservation Network. “You must safeguard the health of the community and bring no further environmental harm to the citizens of Robeson County.”

Communities of color already suffer from higher rates of respiratory illnesses and are disproportionately sickened by COVID-19 than white people. According to the Robeson County Health Department, as of June 22, there have been 1,185 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 37 deaths. Polluting industries are also more likely to locate near neighborhoods that lack the political, social and economic power to fight them.

“I’m totally against it coming because of the air pollutants,” Carol Richardson, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Robeson County and the NAACP, said. “To add this wood pellet plant would increase the threat to our health and well-being. Can you guarantee there will be no harm to us now or in future because of this plant? No, no, no, to the wood pellet plant.”

Although marketed as “clean energy,” wood pellets are a polluting industry. A single pellet plant can emit tons of hazardous air pollutants and greenhouse gases each year. And because the plants consume not just “waste wood,” but also whole trees, they contribute to deforestation. Even replanting trees can’t keep pace with the destruction of wildlife habitats, releases of carbon stored in the wood, and more severe flooding in low-lying areas — areas like Robeson County.

Active Energy Renewable Power occupies a 415,000-square-foot building that used to house Alamac American Knits. The company has applied to the state for an air permit to manufacture wood pellets. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Anita Cunningham of the Robeson County Coalition for Clean and Green Industry lives near the plant. Some of the wood would be sourced from Robeson County, and cutting the trees, Cunningham said, would add to the county’s severe flooding problems. “The trees absorb the water,” Cunningham said. “Do not grant this permit. It bothers me that more dirty industry is coming to North Carolina and Robeson County.”

Like Enviva, which has four wood pellet plants in North Carolina, AERP has located in an economically disadvantaged area and has used the lure of jobs to boost support. However, opponents told DEQ that the purported economic benefit doesn’t outweigh the environmental and public health costs.

Robeson County Commissioner Pauline Campbell said she doesn’t support recruiting more polluting industries to locate in Robeson County. “We’ve been subjected to environmental injustices for longer than I can remember,” she said.

AERP is legally required to create at least 40 full-time jobs, according to stipulations of a $500,000 state grant. (Some state documents say the facility will hire 50-60 people.)

In April 2019, the NC Department of Commerce awarded the money to AERP to go toward upfitting the building. The money is allocated to Robeson County, which in turn, gives it to AERP as a forgivable loan.

According to Active Energy’s application to the state, pay will range from $35,000 to $50,000 annually and the company will cover 50% of workers’ health insurance premiums.

The agreement with the state says that Active Energy has 18 months from the award date — or October of this year — to create most of the jobs, and they must be maintained for at least six consecutive months within the two-year grant period.

If Active Energy fails to meet the job terms of the agreement, the company must repay the money. But Commerce Department documents explicitly say that Robeson County is ultimately on the hook for the refund, regardless of whether officials can collect from AERP.

While the company projects it will eventually generate $10 million in revenue annually, between the lumber operations and the pellet plant. But AERP is currently deep in debt, according to its public financial statements and those submitted to the state Commerce Department. In 2014, Active Energy, the parent company, reported a loss of $2.7 million; those losses more than doubled the next year. In 2017, the company reported a comprehensive loss for the year of more than $14 million.

Recent investor analysis by Allenby Capital showed the company reported more than $17 million in debt last year.

Rep. Charles Graham, a five-term Democrat who lives in Lumberton, said he is “not behind this project at this time.”

“We do need jobs but I heard and support citizens’ voices,” Graham said. “I’ve heard from a lot of people that DEQ should slow down. We need more information.”

This post has been corrected to say more information is needed on acrolein and formaldehyde, not chromium and formaldehyde.

20 Comments


  1. Doug

    June 24, 2020 at 9:07 am

    The research behind your article is highly inaccurate, I listened to the meeting Monday and the views and expressions of people were far wise of the subject in hand. It seems to me the aerp can solve the problem of the white pellet which I get is not a good option, if given the opportunity to prove themselves then surely it is a better option. As stated in the meeting by a aerp official the company will not be cutting trees but using waste product of trees….so aerp themselves will not be cutting down forests

  2. Ana

    June 24, 2020 at 9:33 am

    Hi

    My concern with all this is an agenda is very apparent. Just suppose the coalswitch product it’s significantly cleaner than white pellet? Is that not good news? Is that not an improvement? 80% of the work force are locals….is that not good? I think articles like this are very misleading. Issue the permit – say a stack test is necessary before any commercial production, if it fails revoke the permit, if it succeeds good news…..it’s really that easy.

  3. Eric

    June 24, 2020 at 1:19 pm

    A very bias article written by someone who rumour has it is a Marxist deep down. A fair opportunity is all these guys want.

  4. Ronald

    June 24, 2020 at 1:27 pm

    Lisa, we need to start supporting businesses to grow and prosper. I have lost my job through the current pandemic and the business had cut backs. We need jobs and aerp offers opportunities. If you had your way i think we would all be asking for handouts from the government!

  5. Jack Spruill

    June 24, 2020 at 2:14 pm

    Great reporting, Lisa Sorg! Please continue your investigative research on the biofuels / wood pellet matter.

  6. Danielle

    June 24, 2020 at 2:34 pm

    Wow very inaccurate article….all based on hearsay and old information on OTHER companies pellets.

  7. Lisa Sorg

    June 24, 2020 at 2:35 pm

    There is an individual named Ian Fellows who is posting multiple comments under multiple names. Those posts have been deleted.

  8. Robert pride

    June 24, 2020 at 2:48 pm

    Really disappointing journalism. Barely any permits are granted without this sort of generic complaint. Replacing coal with clean energy and also jobs for locals would make sense. Easy to shut down if it breaches rules.

    Factually inaccurate reporting and sweeping statements.

  9. Temi Moffitt

    June 24, 2020 at 2:59 pm

    We must ask ourselves, why would a near-bankrupt company like AERP choose to situate a dirty factory in a place like Robeson County, NC? Because they have ascertained where in NC the lowest level of education is, and they think Robeson’s citizens are too ignorant and uncaring to fight this, and will be fooled into thinking a low-pay job for six months is a good thing. Why cover only half of health insurance with these jobs? Moreover, if AERP defaults, the Robeson county taxpayers are stuck with repaying the state loan +6 $500k. Sweet deal for AERP, but I hope Robeson residents stand up for their rights. Black lives matter.

  10. Karen Mallam

    June 24, 2020 at 3:21 pm

    Thanks, Lisa, for a highly informative article. I really appreciate your focus on environmental issues, and your dogged follow up.

  11. Eric

    June 24, 2020 at 3:21 pm

    People shouldn’t post under different names that’s disappointing!

  12. Rick E. Savage

    June 24, 2020 at 5:02 pm

    Great article! I listened to the hearing and Lisa’s assessment is quite accurate.
    SO, first the use of waste wood is highly overstated. Yes they do, but they also use all the lumber they can get. SO this takes away a viable carbon storage system (the tree and soil) and creates pellets to burn and put the carbon into the atmosphere. We cannot keep doing that, we have to keep carbon in the ground and even increase our carbon storage.
    Wood pellets are not good for our planet, our economy, our air, our people. It is not sustainable, it is not clearn, it is not green.
    Time to face that reality and create clearn energy jobs!

  13. Richard

    June 24, 2020 at 7:52 pm

    My understanding is coal switch burns hotter and cleaner than traditional wood pellets which should be phased out.
    AEG have stated they produce 2nd generation biofuels. Made entirely of waste wood from the timber yard and any organic waste they can source, eg agricultural crop waste, burnt timber from Forrest fires etc etc, the point is not to use lumber as its too valuable a resource to waste, hence the timber yard.
    Lumberton residents cut down the timber, and its up to Lumberton to manage the forests properly. This is not AEGs responsibility.
    The emissions were sampled when the coal switch plant was operational in Utah. AEG have a good idea of what the emmissions will be as stated and can be confirmed during monitoring. Perhaps the other polluting businesses in Lumberton should be approached and told to reduce emmissions? AEG will have state of the art emission filters and reducers to keep pollutants to a minimum. Do other businesses in Lumberton do thr same?
    AEG are in Lumberton as its a strategicly significant place for global trade with a suitable pool of labour. Personally I want to see fossil fuels especially coal phased out and believe cleaner renewables like coal switch is a fantastic bridge fuel to get us to a cleaner future. Green energy from solar, eind and hydrogen won’t happen overnight but coal needs to be replaced now. For the next 20 years while we transition to a cleaner greener futurecoalswitch could be that bridging fuel. Give the permit and monitor emissions. All other issues such as flooding etc is about forestry managment, the tree’s will be cut regardless, the waste from timber will give off carbon etc as it rots naturally. AEG captures that waste and gives it a purpose.

  14. Hwa Huang

    June 25, 2020 at 1:27 am

    I understand that a lot of people are saying that this facility is supposedly necessary for the economy, but for those who make the claim about the need to support economy, please do listen to the people of Robeson County. Nobody at that hearing who was a resident in Robeson wanted the facility there.

    A community needs to have its people first. If you can’t attend the needs of the people who live there, nothing that is built there can possibly make the community thrive. We cannot and should not subject the people of Robeson county to further harm!

    “Without emissions modeling and additional stack testing, she said, it’s impossible to confirm AERP’s claims.” It is downright awful that AERP is pushing for this project despite lack of scientific backings to support their claim that their emission would have no impact on the people. Thank you for writing this article, Lisa. I wish more people will recognize that people’s health and the environment’s health, need to take priority over profits for a change.

  15. Cathy Buckley

    June 25, 2020 at 6:56 am

    Thanks for your well-researched article, Ms. Sorg.
    I ask each of you saying ‘this plant sounds great’ to sincerely ask yourself if you would change your tune if it was within sight of your home.
    That this process might be better than the most onerous ones on record is a most strange and dangerous standard. We have to go clean, folks, and fast.
    I attended the entire hearing. I was gratified to hear so many, from Robeson County to England, support the health and welfare of those in NC now, and those yet to be born.

  16. Steven Norris, Ph.D.

    June 25, 2020 at 7:36 am

    Robeson County needs green, sustainable, and financially sound businesses, not another failed company like AERP that produces huge amounts of toxic emissions and is propped up with a half million dollar state subsidy. DEQ must deny the permit

  17. Dr. Robert Parr

    June 25, 2020 at 7:50 am

    Thanks Lisa for another great report outlining how polluting industries, using unproven technology prey upon rural communities in North Carolina – promising economic benefits for a few while injecting tons of toxic air pollutants into the air that all citizens must breathe on a daily basis. Volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, formaldehyde, benzene and ground level ozone expected from plant operations have been shown in hundreds of medical reports to have highly negative effects on human health. The 2020 Robert Wood Johnson County Health scores lists Robeson County at the bottom of all 100 counties in North Carolina for health outcomes and health related quality of life. Robeson County ranks 99 out of 100 counties for premature death. The closest air quality monitors run by the Department of Air Quality (monitors that watch over air pollution to help safe guard the public health) are located 30 miles away in Fayetteville and will be ineffective for monitoring local air quality impacts. If North Carolina is serious about protecting the health of the citizens of Robeson County this unproven and risky venture should be denied at this time.

  18. Kay Reibold

    June 25, 2020 at 9:24 am

    Thank you, Lisa, for an excellent article. I attended the hearing and was moved by the testimony of many Robeson County residents who oppose the proposed wood pellet plant. The community has already suffered too much from dirty industry in the area and the last thing citizens need is another polluter of the air, soil and water. Keep up the good work by shining a spotlight on those industries which harm the environment, cause severe health problems and wreak havoc on the climate.

  19. Andy Wood

    June 25, 2020 at 10:56 pm

    Thank you Lisa, for providing a clear summary of this industry-proposed environmental injustice. Robeson County residents are understandably wary of an unproven technology being tinkered-with in their front yard by an economically-challenged corporation using lobby-speak to garner support from policy-makers and regulators. And to be clear, fueling our 21st century global society with wood-containing pellets will require more than leaves and twigs to supply the raw material needed to fuel electricity-producing power plants; power plants that cost rate-payers (customers) many billions of dollars to operate each year. Just as energy companies removed mountaintops throughout Appalachia to glean a little coal, so too do energy companies clearcut whole forests to render trees into pellets. The bitter irony with wood pellets is, they require more energy to harvest, process, and ship, than the energy they provide in return. In truth, wood pellet to energy schemes, including so-called CoalSwitch, cannot be sustained without massive taxpayer subsidy because the energy required to operate the scheme costs more than the energy produced by the scheme. This truth will eventually be understood by voters and so the wood pellet industry is casting-out to re-brand its product, under the guise of new technology with a new look and name: CoalSwitch. Thank you again Lisa, and also Robeson County Coalition for Clean and Green Industry, for shedding sunlight on this not-so-brilliant marketing ploy and disingenuous energy scheme.

  20. harry gedney

    July 2, 2020 at 5:46 pm

    We need to be saving our trees – they capture pollution and carbon dioxide while creating clean water and oxygen. burning wood is inefficient fuel and is a bad polluter.

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