DEQ approves permit for NC Renewable Power, a chronic violator of the Clean Air Act

The colored dots represent facilities that have permits to discharge or emit pollution near the NC Renewable Power facility. In greater Lumberton, there are 40 facilities that emit air pollution, 15 hazardous waste sites, nine unlined landfills, four coal ash structural fills, as well as other contamination sources. (Map: DEQ)

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has issued a an air permit to an energy facility that has racked up a long history of violations and fines, and sits in the middle of an environmental justice neighborhood in Lumberton.

North Carolina Renewable Power, which burns poultry litter and virgin wood to produce energy, has a long history of Clean Air Act violations. Policy Watch reported earlier this year that from 2016 to 2020, the facility emitted at least 5,141 tons, equivalent to 10.2 million pounds of pollutants, according to state records.  These pollutants included formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, as well as carbon monoxide, particulate matter and sulfur dioxide.

The plant has not operated since 2020, after failing to comply with a Special Order by Consent, entered into with DAQ, to address emissions exceedances.

The new permit reclassifies NCRP as a “Prevention of Significant Deterioration” major air pollution source. This classification requires a facility to install “Best Available Control Technology,” but doesn’t prohibit it from increasing emissions. In essence, this reclassification moves the goalposts so that a facility can comply with the law.

NCRP will be required to report to the state most of its emissions, according to the new permit, except for “sulfuric acid mist.”

During a public hearing earlier this year, community members urged the state to denied the permit. Of the 50 comments received, four of them duplicates, none supported NCRP. The census tracts that abut or contain the power plant are predominantly Black and Native American; the poverty rate is nearly 30%. In addition, Robeson County ranks last in the state for health factors, with higher-than-average rates of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

However in its response to public comment, the Division of Air Quality said it did not have the authority to deny the permit based on environmental justice issues. There is only one state environmental program — the Division of Waste Management — that can use those considerations to deny or modify a permit, limited to the siting of solid waste landfills.

Just last week, the state Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board discussed the cumulative impacts of pollution on marginalized communities. Although the board has no legal authority, it could ask state lawmakers and DEQ to broaden the scope of environmental justice in permitting decisions beyond landfills.

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