Virtual public hearing tonight on Enviva wood pellet plant, major source of greenhouse gases, air pollutants

(Photo: Creative Commons)

An Enviva wood pellet plant would emit more than 380,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year under the terms of proposed changes to its air permit, the subject of a public hearing tonight.

The plant between Gaston and Garysburg, in Northampton County, has operated since 2013, and is allowed to produce up to 625,225 oven-dried tons of pellets per year. It is classified as a Title V facility, which applies to major air pollution sources. The permit has been amended several times to account for changes in equipment and processes.

The virtual meeting starts at 6 p.m. DEQ has published details of how to attend on its website. The public comment period ends Wednesday, May 26. DEQ has also included instructions on how to submit comments.

The industry frames wood pellets as “renewable” because trees can be replanted. However, that definition glosses over the myriad environmental harms resulting from the process. From cradle to grave, wood pellets release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, major drivers 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. Trees are carbon sinks because they absorb and store carbon dioxide.

Obtaining the pellets also requires the deforestation of parts of eastern North Carolina, fragmenting wildlife habitats and removing natural flood control provided by large stands of trees. Once the trees arrive at an Enviva plant, they are ground into kibble-size pellets; that process also emits pollutants into the air, the amount of which is regulated by state air permits. 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.

In the governor’s Clean Energy Plan, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality rejected the idea that burning trees for fuel qualifies as low-carbon, renewable energy.

The Garysburg plant is one of four Enviva facilities in North Carolin; The others are in Ahoskie, Faison and Hamlet. All of the facilities are in environmental justice communities. In Garysburg, federal and state data show that of the 1,441 people living in the census block group, 71% are persons of color and 55.24% are low-income. Rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and child mortality are all well above the state average.

This table shows the pollutants the plant is expected to emit annually, based on NC DEQ documents. PM10 stands for “particulate matter” that is 10 microns in size. PM2.5 is the more harmful type of particulate matter. It is about 30 times smaller in diameter than a human hair and can burrow deeply into the lungs, causing or worsening heart and lung problems. Long-term exposure to
PM 2.5 also has been linked to more severe COVID-19 symptoms.

“Carbon dioxide equivalent” measures emissions from various greenhouse gases — methane, for example — on the basis of their global warming potential.

Estimated emissions per year, in tons

Carbon monoxide — 171
Nitrogen oxide — 213
PM10 — 89
PM2.5 — 75
Sulfur dioxide — 39
Volatile organic compounds — 120
Hazardous air pollutants — 18
Carbon dioxide equivalent — 383,222


This table, based on the company’s draft permit submitted to DEQ, shows the historical actual emissions from the plant. HAP stands for hazardous air pollutants. According to the EPA, chronic exposure to methanol, such as by inhaling the gas or drinking substances with high levels of it (moonshine, for example), can cause headache, dizziness, giddiness, insomnia, nausea, gastric disturbances, conjunctivitis, blurred vision, and blindness.

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