Active Energy disregards state rules (again), DEQ cites wood pellet plant for violations

Active Energy Renewable Power on Alamac Road (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Active Energy Renewable Power has racked up yet another environmental violation — and the controversial wood pellet plant in Lumberton isn’t even built yet.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality this week cited the company for several violations of its air quality permit after inspectors found emissions controls had been built without a permit. That inspection led to the discovery of a more significant problem: The company had redesigned its wood pellet process, known as CoalSwitch, from what was originally submitted in its air permit and subsequently approved by DEQ.

Neither Antonio Esposito, chief operating officer for Active Energy Renewable Power, nor company spokesman Tom Huddart responded to Policy Watch emails seeking comment.

More than a year behind schedule, the wood pellet plant at the former Alamac Knits factory hasn’t been built; meanwhile, a sawmill operates there. Community members and environmental advocates have opposed the plant not only because of air quality concerns, but also its proximity to the Lumber River.

The plant lies within an environmental justice community: 90% of residents in the same census block are persons of color, many of them Native American. Two-thirds of the households are low-income, according to census data.

According to a letter to the company, the initial inspection by the Division of Air Quality was conducted on March 29. Two weeks later, on April 14, the agency and company representatives held a conference call about the state of construction and design of the plant. During that call Active Energy representatives confirmed that two unpermitted control devices had been installed; division officials told the company that installation violated its air quality permit.

Yet during a follow-up inspection on April 27, Division of Air Quality inspectors found yet another unpermitted device had been built. The company claimed that that device had been built before the earlier conference call and that they had since stopped construction.

According to a notice from the company posted last December on the London Stock Exchange news service, Active Energy had been working on these design revisions since October 2020. A engineering firm contracted by the company had analyzed the wood pellet process in regards to the air permit requirements, and subsequently changed the design. Construction was to begin in January 2021.

The company’s announcement aligns with comments made by an individual with knowledge of Active Energy’s business plan. That person told Policy Watch in an interview that it was unlikely the previous design could meet the permit requirements. The person, who no longer is affiliated with the company, asked not to be named because they said they feared retribution from company officials for speaking out.

The person told Policy Watch that equipment had to be shipped from elsewhere in the U.S., which the company announcement also confirmed. “The company says it has a low carbon footprint,” the person said. “But they’ve trucked the plant from Utah and now the rest of the equipment. This is not green.”

CoalSwitch wood pellets

Active Energy projects it will manufacture 40,000 tons of wood pellets per year. But the company has told shareholders that it expects to ramp up production to 400,000 tons annually. Even at initial production estimates, the plant is expected to emit 11,300 tons of greenhouse gases per year, plus 7.9 tons of carbon monoxide, 2.5 tons of hazardous air pollutants and 23.6 tons of volatile organic compounds, according to its air permit.

“We’re glad to see DEQ finally take action and hold Active Energy accountable for violations of its air quality permit,” said Heather Hillaker, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, via email. “We remain concerned, however, that Active Energy has still not applied for a permit to authorize water pollution that is expected once the pellet mill starts operating. We hope DEQ will be as diligent in examining this issue and ensuring that Active Energy’s operations do not result in additional environmental violations.”

The Division of Air Quality also told the company it must submit a permit modification as soon as possible to address all changes; it did so on April 26. Given the public interest in the proposed plant, DEQ could hold a public hearing on the modified permit. At the very least, there would be a public comment period. The p

Active Energy has until May 19 to explain why it violated the terms of its permit.

As Policy Watch reported last year, CoalSwitch was tested in 2016 at the University of Utah’s Institute for Clean and Secure Energy. The results showed that CoalSwitch wood pellets could be burned alongside coal or as a standalone fuel in traditional power plants with no loss of heat. Utilities that chose to use CoalSwitch pellets wouldn’t have to spend millions of dollars to retrofit their facilities. And because the patented technology uses steam to explode the pellets, which resemble black kibble, to remove some contaminants, they burn cleaner than coal.

However, the Institute for Clean and Secure Energy, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, as well as the fossil fuel industry, did not, however, test the stack emissions for CoalSwitch. The tests catered only to utilities, which would buy the pellets, generating energy for themselves and substantial profits for Active Energy. 

A British company, Active Energy is publicly traded on the London Stock Exchange. It has been embroiled in controversy since it tested its technology in Utah. Two former employees have sued company, alleging financial irregularities.

Last year, DEQ found the company was illegally discharging stormwater from the site; it later applied for and received a stormwater discharge permit. In March 2021, the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of Winyah Rivers Alliance, sued the company, alleging its discharge of wastewater into Jacob’s Branch, a tributary of the Lumber River, violated the Clean Water Act.

The wastewater originates beneath the ground and is contaminated. At least one previous tenant polluted the groundwater with dry cleaning solvents.

This week, the company filed a Motion to Dismiss the suit, and issued an announcement, saying it “strongly refutes and denies the allegations.”  Active Energy said it also “intends to seek sanctions against SELC for having failed to conduct a reasonable inquiry as to the facts and/or law prior to filing this suit.”

State Rep. Pricey Harrison introduces bill to establish protections for environmental justice communities

State Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Guilford County (Photo: NCGA)

All state agencies would have to consider environmental and public health justice when deciding on whether to approve publicly funded projects, according to a bill filed today by State Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Guilford County. House Bill 784 would also require the agencies to deny permits for these projects if they would disproportionately burden low-income neighborhoods or communities of color that are protected by Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Although many state agencies — transportation, commerce, cultural and natural resources — touch on environmental justice, the bill singles out the NC Department of Environmental Quality because its decisions most often affect these underserved communities.

HB 784 would direct DEQ to deny a permit application for a solid waste facility, such as a landfill, on environmental justice grounds, as defined by federal law.

The state’s solid waste rules already require DEQ to consider cumulative impacts on environmental justice communities for these types of permits. However, DEQ can still approve the permit — and has done so — even if it finds there are environmental justice concerns.

The legislation also would require DEQ to similarly weigh these concerns for major air permits, known as Title V permits. Examples of Title V permit holders are Duke Energy, UNC Chapel Hill’s power plant, Enviva’s four wood pellet facilities, Chemours, and 3M in Pittsboro.

Under HB 784, DEQ and any commission with permitting authority would have to hold at least one public hearing in the overburdened community, provide 60 days’ notice and include in a hearing officer’s report a response to community input. The hearing requirement would be in addition to other legally required public participation.

 

Fire breaks out at Enviva wood pellet plant with history of environmental violations

 

Smoke from the Enviva plant fire in Sampson County (Photo courtesy Derb Carter, Southern Environmental Law Center)

A fire broke out Friday afternoon at an Enviva wood pellet plant with an extensive history of environmental violations, sending thick clouds of smoke across Interstate 40. A pile of raw wood at a facility in Faison, in Sampson County, caught fire. In a statement, the company said it was investigating the cause. According to TV media reports, the fire, whipped by strong winds, also spread to a nearby woods. More than 50 firefighters, as well as the NC Forestry Service, were on the scene. No one was injured.

According to NC Department of Environmental Quality records, Enviva has accumulated five air quality violations at the Sampson County plant since 2017. These include excess emissions of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter in violation of the facility’s air permit. Earlier this year, DEQ fined the company $7,300 in civil penalties for equipment failures in 2020 that resulted in violations of the permit.

Enviva operates four plants in North Carolina: Ahoskie, Hamlet, Garysburg and Faison, all in communities of color or low-income neighborhoods.

Enviva’s plant in Ahoskie has also been cited by the state for failure to control dust and equipment failures; its facility in Hamlet was fined more than $11,000 last year for equipment malfunctions that led to violations of its air permit.

Settlement agreements with environmental groups and the state required the company to install more stringent air pollution controls at the Hamlet and Faison plants.

These plants are operated under the guise that wood pellets are clean, renewable energy. However, the entire cradle-to-grave process emits carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas and driver of climate change. Enviva uses trees logged from North Carolina forests — some of them hardwoods — which removes some of the valuable “carbon sinks” from the landscape. In addition to providing valuable wildlife habitats, trees absorb and store carbon dioxide. Forests also function as natural flood control because they absorb water and reduce runoff.

Once the trees arrive at an Enviva plant, they are ground into kibble-size pellets; that process also emits tons of pollutants into the air each year: carbon monoxide, fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds

The company then transports the pellets by truck or rail to the state ports — again, using carbon-emitting transportation — where they are loaded onto a carbon-emitting ship and hauled across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom. There, in lieu of coal, the UK burns the pellets, which emits carbon dioxide, to fire electricity-generating power plants.

The governor’s Clean Energy Plan excludes the wood pellet industry: “Currently, the wood pellet industry does not contribute to NC’s energy generation portfolio and does not advance NC’s clean energy economy.”

This is second fire at the Sampson facility, and at least the sixth fire at an Enviva plant in the Southeast since 2014.

  • April 8, 2020, Faison, N.C., in Sampson County
  • March 8, 2020, Greenwood, S.C.: A fire started in one of the plant’s silos, temporarily shutting down the plant’s assembly line.
  • Feb. 27, 2018, Chesapeake, Va.: A fire started in conveyor equipment near the top of one of the concrete storage domes and then spread to pellets in the domes, according to Dust Safety Science. A fire suppression system in the domes dispersed liquid nitrogen to keep the fire from spreading.
  • Aug. 8, 2016, Northampton County, N.C.
  • Jan. 9, 2014, Southampton County, Va.

Meanwhile, Enviva has applied for a modified air permit at its Northampton plant, a Title V facility. Title V permits are reserved for major pollution emitters. The NC Department of Environmental Quality has scheduled a virtual public hearing for May 24.

DEQ denies MVP Southgate water quality permit — again

The proposed route of the MVP Southgate project. DEQ denied a water quality permit for the project for the second time.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality has again denied a key water quality permit for the proposed MVP Southgate natural gas pipeline, dealing another setback to the controversial project that would run through Rockingham and Alamance counties.

DEQ originally denied the water quality permit application last August. At the time Division of Water Resources Director Danny Smith wrote that because of “uncertainty surrounding the completion of the MVP Mainline project … work on the Southgate extension could lead to unnecessary water quality impacts and disturbance of the environment in North Carolina.”

MVP appealed the DEQ’s denial to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. But last month, appeals court judges determined that DEQ’s decision to deny the permit was consistent with state and federal law. The agency also adequately explained its concerns about the viability of Southgate in the context of the delayed mainline project. But where DEQ erred, the court said, is that it failed to fully explain why it chose to deny the permit outright rather than granting a conditional one, contingent on the successful construction of the main line.

Today’s denial corrects that error and explains the agency’s reasoning, DEQ said.

MVP Southgate would run from Chatham, Va., and enter North Carolina near Eden, in Rockingham County. From there, it would route nearly 50 miles southeast, cutting through Alamance County and ending in Graham. In total, the southern portion would cross 207 streams, three ponds and  temporarily affect 17,726 linear feet of streams, 6,538 square feet of open waters, and 14 acres of wetlands; another 0.02 of an acre of wetlands would be permanently damaged. Nearly 14 acres of riparian buffers would also be affected. MVP Southgate would cross the Dan River, home to endangered and threatened species, and Stony Creek Reservoir, the main drinking water supply for the City of Burlington.

Owned by Pittsburgh-based EQM Midstream Partners, MVP Southgate is an extension of the main MVP natural gas pipeline, which starts at a fracked gas operation in northern West Virginia and ends in Chatham, Va. However, the main MVP pipeline has been stalled by a succession of legal challenges brought by environmental groups, as well as stop-work orders enacted by the state of Virginia over environmental violations.

Those stoppages and legal entanglements have cast doubt on the viability of the MVP project, both the main line and the southern portion.

For this reason, DEQ chose to deny MVP Southgate permit outright rather than grant a conditional one. “The history of the Mainline Project demonstrates why such a condition would be inadequate,” DEQ said. “Indeed, the Mainline Project has received several federal approvals only to have those approvals struck down upon review by the Fourth Circuit … Therefore, under the particular circumstances associated with the Mainline Project, mere issuance of federal permits does not provide sufficient assurance that the Mainline Project will in fact move forward and, consequently, that impacts from the Southgate Project will not be unnecessary and avoidable.”

Already North Carolina residents have seen the consequences of pipeline construction. For the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would have traversed 160 miles in eastern North Carolina, contractors clearcut trees from some areas and excavated large swaths of land. But legal challenges and other permitting complexities doomed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which Duke Energy and Dominion Energy canceled last year. Now the utilities must repair the environmental damage, if that’s even possible. In addition, the ACP had used eminent domain or negotiated land deals for easements and right-of-ways for the route.

The agency also denied a Jordan Lake Riparian Buffer Authorization, which is required because the pipeline route is within the Haw River basin, a part of the Jordan Lake watershed.

Under new administrator Regan, EPA closes loophole on toxic PFAS

EPA Administrator Michael Regan (Photo: EPA)

Manufacturers of perfluorinated compounds, also known as PFAS, will no longer be allowed to use a special exemption that allowed hundreds of these toxic substances to be fast tracked into the marketplace.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced yesterday that the agency is closing the “low-volume” loophole. It allowed industries that agreed to limit their manufacture of chemicals, including PFAS, to no more than 22 tons per year to request a shortened 30-day scientific review instead of the traditional 90 days.

The Environmental Defense Fund recently analyzed applications for these exemptions and found that under the Trump administration the EPA allowed 15 of 24 PFAS into the marketplace under expedited review; another application was “conditionally granted.”

The Environmental Working Group said 490 PFAS compounds have received exemptions since 2000. One hundred and seven were denied.

“It’s good news that the EPA has closed this loophole, which has allowed too many new PFAS into commerce without adequate safety reviews,” said EWG Senior Scientist David Andrews, Ph.D.

Clean Cape Fear, Earth Justice, Advance Carolina and other community groups had filed a petition requesting the EPA close the loophole.

The list of serious health problems linked to PFAS continues to grow: Thyroid disorders, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, kidney, testicular, prostate and ovarian cancers; low-birth weight, high blood pressure during pregnancy, decreased fertility in both men and women, and high cholesterol.

“We’re glad to see the administrator continues to make PFAS a priority, and we ultimately need a whole of government approach to PFAS that includes the Department of Defense, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration, not just the EPA,” said Scott Faber, the Environmental Working Group’s senior vice president for government affairs.

Regan also announced he is establishing a new council on PFAS, composed of senior leadership within the EPA. In a memo to top officials within the EPA, Regan wrote that the work of the council is to “advance new science, develop … policies and regulations … and engage with affected states, tribes and communities.” Regan cautioned that the council would supplement other work by the EPA on PFAS.

Among other initiatives under the Biden Administration, the EPA has begun to develop a national primary drinking water regulation and to solicit data on PFAS in wastewater discharges. These discharges are important because wastewater is discharged from municipal treatment plants, and some industrial facilities, into waterways. Although the wastewater is treated beforehand, traditional methods don’t remove PFAS.

Regan, former secretary of the NC Department of Environmental Quality, said in a press release that “Coming from North Carolina, I’ve seen first-hand how devastating these chemicals can be for communities and the need for strong EPA leadership. That’s why today, I am calling on our senior leadership to form a new Council that will identify pragmatic approaches that deliver critical protections to the American public. As one of my top priorities as administrator, EPA will prioritize partnerships and collaboration with our federal, state, tribal and local partners, and engage the public about the risk associated with these chemicals.”