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Proposed changes would allow Enviva wood pellet plant to emit 238,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year

From cradle to grave, the wood pellet industry is a major source of carbon dioxide emissions, a driver of climate change. (Creative Commons)

As climate change pushed July temperatures in the U.S. to the third-hottest on record, a wood pellet plant in Hertford County is proposing to increase its greenhouse gas emissions by 47% over 2016 levels.

Enviva’s wood pellet plant in Ahoskie could emit nearly 238,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year, according to the company’s draft air permit filed with the state. The company’s 2016 permit capped that amount at roughly 163,000 tons.

Annual levels of carbon monoxide would spike by 285%, from 45 tons to 173.6 tons over the same time period.

These increases would occur because Enviva plans to increase its production by a third, from 481,800 oven-dried tons annually to 630,000.

Yet, these figures estimates significantly underestimate carbon dioxide emissions along the entire supply chain. Carbon dioxide is released when vast tracts of trees are cut to manufacture the pellets, when the material is transported by truck to the plant, and on to the port for shipping abroad. The greenhouse gas is further emitted by ships transporting the pellets, and finally, at their destination: retrofitted coal-fired power plants, notably in the United Kingdom, where the pellets are burned for fuel.

In its Clean Energy Plan the NC Department of Environmental Quality has rejected the idea that burning trees for fuel qualifies as low-carbon, renewable energy.

Levels of some emissions would decrease, according to the draft permit — hazardous air pollutants, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter — as a result of plant upgrades.

Besides the greenhouse gas emissions, the loss of forests in flood-prone eastern North Carolina have other far-reaching ramifications. Mature trees, more so than saplings, help control floods by absorbing water and stabilizing the soil. Trees also absorb carbon from the air, provide critical wildlife habitat and shade for aquatic life in rivers and streams.

Enviva operates four wood pellet plants in North Carolina: near Faison (Sampson County), Garysburg (Northampton), Hamlet (Richmond) and Ahoskie. All of them are in communities of color, low-income neighborhoods, or both.

These plants are also located in counties where residents have some of the worst health outcomes and factors, according to the 2022 North Carolina State Report, published by the Robert Wood Foundation and the University of Wisconsin.

Here are the health outcomes and factors rankings of North Carolina counties with Enviva plants (1 is best, 100 is worst):

CountyHealth outcomes rankingHealth factors ranking
Hertford8475
Sampson6276
Northampton8686
Richmond9394

While it’s difficult to directly tie these health outcomes and factors to presence of an Enviva plant, these communities also bear the burden of cumulative impacts — several pollution sources that combined can harm human health.

Within a one-mile radius of Enviva’s Ahoskie plant are four hazardous waste sites and an unlined landfill — all neighbors of two low-income housing communities, six churches, a public library.

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Proposed changes would allow Enviva wood pellet plant to emit 238,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year