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.

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