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.

NC Supreme Court deals setback to proposed Ashe County asphalt plant

An asphalt plant is proposed to be built next to Radford Quarries in Ashe County. It has been on hold because of litigation. The state Supreme Court dealt the plant a setback in a decision issued this week. (Map: Google)

An asphalt plant near a camp for seriously ill children.

A fight between the planning board and the planning director.

A recalcitrant quarry owner.

Guns.

A seven-year legal slog over a proposed Ashe County asphalt plant continued this week after the state Supreme Court reversed part of an appellate court’s decision and sent other portions back for further review.

The case began in June 2015. That’s when Appalachian Materials, owned by DJ Cecile, applied to the Ashe County planning department for a permit to build an asphalt plant on 30 acres near Glendale Springs and the New River. The plant would have been constructed adjacent to Radford Quarries, a facility also owned by the Cecile family with a long violation history. (When state regulators inspected Radford Quarries in 2015, Danny Cecile, father of DJ Cecile, “produced a pistol from his pocket,” according to state records, and stated “that the pistol was in case any of the inspectors got ‘out of line.'”)

The plant would also have been located within a quarter mile of Camp New Hope, a getaway for children with serious or terminal illnesses.

Because of the ongoing litigation, the plant has not been built, according to state records. If it is constructed, the plant would emit an estimated 64 tons of air pollution per year, including 20 tons of carbon monoxide, Division of Air Quality records show.

When Appalachian Materials applied for its county permit in the summer of 2015, it did not yet have a state air quality permit, which was pending. The planning director issued a letter of recommendation to the company noting that based on the information received, it had met the requirements of the county’s Polluting Industries Development ordinance, except for the air quality permit.

However, the planning director would later argue that the letter was not binding, in part because the company’s permit application was incomplete.

Many Ashe County residents and the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League protested the proposed location of the facility. In the fall of 2015, the county enacted a six-month moratorium on permits subject to the Polluting Industries Development ordinance, like those for mines and asphalt plants.

Meanwhile, also in 2015, the state legislature passed an industry-friendly law that appeared to defang counties’ moratoria on polluting industries. The law allows companies like Appalachian Materials, if they apply for a permit before a county amends a development ordinance, to choose which version they want to be governed under. In the case of Ashe County, Appalachian Materials could choose the ordinance in effect when it initially filed its permit or a new, more stringent ordinance that was approved after the moratorium was lifted.

Appalachian Materials received its state air permit in February 2016, while the initial moratorium was in effect. That April, the county extended its moratorium for another six months, during which the planning director reviewed Appalachian Materials’ application that now contained the state air permit.

The planning director denied the permit. He found Appalachian Materials’ application had “contained number of false statements, misleading statements, and/or misrepresentations,” according to court records. Nor had the company received a local watershed permit. An outbuilding onsite did not meet the 1,000-foot setback requirements from residences.

Appalachian Materials took their case to the county planning board, which sided with the company and ordered the permit to be granted.

Ashe County challenged the planning board’s decision in Superior Court. That judge ruled in favor of the board and the company; the county then took the case to the Court of Appeals, which in 2019, agreed with the Superior Court judge.

The appellate court offered several reasons for the ruling, including that the county planning board was within its authority to overturn the director’s decision. The judges also ruled that the planning director’s cursory approval of plant’s application — submitted before the state’s air quality permit was finalized—was in part, binding.

Although batting 0-for-2, Ashe County petitioned the state Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in late 2020. In this week’s ruling, the state Supreme Court determined that the planning director’s 2015 letter to the company was not a “final, binding decision.” That letter is still relevant to the case, the Supreme Court wrote, and the appellate court should weigh the letter’s findings in its required review.

Plagued by construction delays, ReBuild NC has spent $10.6 million to house Hurricane Matthew survivors in motels, rent storage units

A house in Wayne County whose homeowner has been displaced by Hurricane Matthew since the storm hit in 2016. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

This story has been corrected to reflect the first TRA payment was in August 2019, not January 2020.

ReBuild NC has spent $10.64 million on motels, moving and storage unit expenses in three years for displaced Hurricane Matthew survivors, as construction and administrative delays have kept people from returning to their homes.

The figures were included in Temporary Relocation Assistance (TRA) data provided by ReBuild NC, also known as the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency. The data also includes expenses for apartment leases and stipends for friends and family of Hurricane Matthew survivors who privately house them.

As part of an ongoing investigative series, Policy Watch reported earlier this month that ReBuild NC had been unable to provide detailed expenditure documents as requested under public records law. The agency then agreed to send totals, but without supporting documentation.

In providing the new information, a ReBuild NC spokesperson noted that TRA funds come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, although this type of assistance is not a HUD requirement. “It is an additional benefit that NCORR decided to provide to make the recovery process easier, especially for those applicants who have no other housing options during the construction process. Without this benefit, many of our applicants would not be able to participate in the program,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

Under the TRA program, once construction begins on a home, ReBuild NC pays to move and house low-income hurricane survivors, as well as covering the cost of renting mobile storage units.

ReBuild NC incurred its first TRA expenses in August 2019. Since then, ReBuild NC has paid $6.5 million in motel bills, $1.7 million to PODS Enterprises, and $70,000 to 1-800-PACK-RAT for mobile storage units, as well as other expenses.

The relocation is supposed to be temporary — usually up to six months — but because of ReBuild NC’s mismanagement of the program, some hurricane survivors have lived in motels for more than two years. This includes the Williams family, who have been stuck in one room without a kitchen for 862 days.

Another homeowner, who asked not to be named for fear that work on their home would be delayed, told Policy Watch they have been in a motel since early 2020. However, the motel does not have a kitchen and the person receives food stamps, which don’t cover restaurant meals. As a result, it has been difficult for them to afford food, they said.

Construction delays have long plagued the program. Although some lag time can be attributed to the pandemic and supply chain issues, that does not explain all of the inefficiencies. In other instances, homeowners have been moved from livable, if damaged houses with the expectation construction would begin immediately. Instead, months, even years pass.

Several contractors have told Policy Watch that they have completed the work but have not been paid by ReBuild NC. Multiple contractors told Policy Watch that it can take months to get approval for change orders; these occur when contractors uncover additional work that needs done and that was beyond the estimate cost of repairs, such as lead paint or asbestos abatement.

According to state data that had been sent by ReBuild NC to the governor’s office and obtained by Policy Watch, 740 homes are listed as complete as of July 11. In early May that figure was 717.

The average cost per house — including new construction and rehabs — is $136,882, according to state cost estimate and invoicing data obtained by Policy Watch. Depending on the type of home, the cost of a motel stay could exceed that of new construction or repairs.

The recent TRA figures don’t capture the full extent of displaced homeowners. Hurricane survivors whose income is too high must pay for their own relocation expenses. However, several homeowners, such as the Dillahunt family, have told Policy Watch their income was miscalculated and they were in effect, homeless. The Zerby family didn’t qualify for TRA and lived in a travel trailer in a church parking lot for more than a year.

ReBuild NC operates its homeowner disaster recovery program using an eight-step process. In the first five steps, the process is primarily administrative: determining an applicant’s eligibility and benefit amounts, as well as inspecting the home.

In Step 6, ReBuild NC puts a project out for bid, and an eligible household can then move using TRA assistance. (If repairs are minor, a homeowner can remain in the house.) There are 819 households in Step 6, according to an eight-step status report dated July 11.

Construction begins in Step 7, the current status for 173 households. Another 740 are in Step 8.

Hurricane Matthew devastated eastern North Carolina in October 2016. HUD subsequently allotted North Carolina a $236 million grant for a disaster relief homeowner recovery program related to the storm. However, the recovery program, initially run by the state Department of Public Safety and the Department of Commerce was slow to launch, and cited by HUD as a “slow spender,” jeopardizing the grant.

The state legislature created the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency in late 2018; Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Laura Hogshead as ReBuild NC’s director; she has been in charge since early 2019. Ivan Duncan is the chief program delivery officer, responsible for dealing with contractors.

Last week, state House and Senate leadership announced the formation of a 12-member oversight committee to investigate the delays and problems with the program. the first meeting has not been scheduled.

 

From Ivan Duncan’s LinkedIn page: Duncan is the chief program delivery officer at ReBuild NC. He was commenting on a United Nations post to LinkedIn about disaster relief. Multiple contractors and homeowners have complained that he is responsible for many of ReBuild’s problems. The agency has declined to make Duncan available to Policy Watch for an interview.

Facing a massive environmental fine, Bottomley again cited for allegedly violating state water quality rules

Photo of a a creek bed that has deep deposits of brown silt, which can suffocate aquatic life

This portion of Ramey Creek is downstream of the Bottomley property. The silt in the creek bed can suffocate aquatic life or their food sources, endangering their habitat. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

A chronic violator allegedly responsible for damaging miles of mountain streams has again been cited by state regulators, even after incurring one of the largest environmental fines in North Carolina history.

Earlier this month, the Department of Environmental Quality cited Bottomley Properties and Bottomley Evergreens and Farms related to the companies’ failure to repair extensive stream damage from land-clearing practices. The repairs were required as part of a work plan agreed to by Bottomley and DEQ.

The Bottomley family owns 1,700 acres in Alleghany and Surry counties, where they grow a variety of vegetables and Christmas trees, and graze cattle. The company and related enterprises have been cited for dozens of environmental violations by state regulators over the past 20 years.

A map showing the Bottomley property in relation to damaged streams in Alleghany and Surry counties in North Carolina.

This map shows the Bottomley property in relation to damaged streams in Alleghany and Surry counties. (Map: DEQ

Most recently, in April DEQ fined the company $268,000 for what the agency called in court documents “egregious violations” of the state’s water quality standards. “The violations observed constituted some of the most extensive sedimentation damage to waters the Division of Water Resources staff involved in this matter have ever seen,” court documents read.

The Bottomley company is exploiting a legal loophole that allows agricultural and mining operations to cut trees and bushes to the stream bank. But it is still illegal for that clear-cutting to degrade water quality.

The damage occurred in 2020 and 2021, when Bottomley had cleared more than 300 acres for a cattle operation. Rock, mud and dirt had damaged three-quarters of an acre of wetlands and more than three linear miles of streams. The NC Wildlife Resources Commission subsequently performed an emergency rescue of vulnerable and unique mountain brook trout — known as “brookies” — and relocated the fish to another stream.

Photo of a steep grassy slope where there were once trees. Only a few scraggy trees remain after the land was cleared.

This steep slope was clearcut as part of the Bottomley company’s cattle grazing operation. The company left just a few scraggly trees. It has replanted this slope with grass in order to keep runoff from entering nearby Ramey Creek. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

In addition to the fine, DEQ is requiring Bottomley to restore stream banks and repair other damage. However, according to the NOV dated July 15, 2022, Division of Water Resources inspectors documented ongoing water quality violations as a result of the original land clearing in 2020 and 2021. While some slopes have been planted with grasses and trees to stabilize the hillsides and stream banks, other areas are bare and eroding.

Cattle were also “present within the field,” even though the state had required Bottomley to fence in the streams and provide alternate water for the animals before allowing them to graze. Hoof prints and cattle manure were found along the stream banks. Fecal coliform levels exceeded state freshwater standards by three to six times.

There was also a “significant amount of algae” in a tributary to Ramey Creek, likely because of fertilizer and manure runoff. Algae blooms can kill fish and other aquatic life because they decrease oxygen levels in the water. Silt and sediment had accumulated up to 6 inches deep.

A second violation issued July 18, 2022, is connected to land clearing in Alleghany County. The company allegedly filled 1,000 square feet of wetland with debris.

Bottomley is contesting the earlier fine in state administrative law court. A hearing is scheduled for October.

 

Colonial Pipeline now says it spilled 2 million gallons of gasoline in NC — 31 times greater than original estimates

A pie chart showing that equipment failure and corrosion accounted for most of Colonial Pipeline's 32 gasoline spills in North Carolina since 2020.

The Huntersville gasoline spill was Colonial Pipeline’s 32nd accident in North Carolina since 2000. (Graphic: Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration)

This story has been updated with further response from Colonial.

Colonial Pipeline has announced it spilled 2 million gallons of gasoline in Huntersville — 31 times greater than original estimates, and now the largest onshore accident in U.S. history.

The spill happened nearly two years ago, on Aug. 14, 2020, in the Oehler Nature Preserve in Huntersville. Colonial initially estimated the amount at 63,000 gallons.

The new disclosure was a requirement of a recent consent order that requires the company to provide an updated estimate of the volume of gasoline released within 30 days. The consent order also requires the company to take specific remedial actions and pay nearly $5 million in penalties and investigative costs.

The Huntersville spill occurred when a broken “Type A sleeve” failed. That sleeve had been installed in 2004. The sleeve was supposed to protect and reinforce a shallow dent in the pipeline, but over time became weakened by corrosion.

 A leak detection system failed to alert the company of the spill, one of a series of failures over the past five years throughout the Southeast. A year ago, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) determined that the problems with the pipeline in Huntersville were likely present throughout Colonial’s entire 5,500-mile route.

“As part of holding ourselves accountable, we have applied lessons learned from this event across our operations,” Colonial Pipeline wrote in a prepared statement. “For example, following the event in August 2020, we identified segments of our mainlines with previous repairs similar to the type at Huntersville (called a segmented Type A sleeve) and converted them all to pressure-containing Type B Sleeves.”

However, Colonial did not make these repairs independently. They were required as part of a federal consent order with the PHMSA, which mandated that Colonial inspect its leak detection system and inventory all of its Type A sleeve repairs and determine whether they need replaced. By complying with the federal consent order, Colonial avoided being fined.

Colonial responded on July 27: “While sleeve conversions were indeed part of the consent agreement, Colonial had already initiated a framework, through our Safety Management System, to better understand the incident and apply learnings from it. Well before any regulatory enforcement action, Colonial proactively identified all similar repairs on the mainlines of our pipeline system (both stacked and segmented Type A Sleeves) and converted them all to pressure-containing Type B Sleeves. In all conversions to Type B Sleeves on the mainlines, Colonial did not observe any evidence of product having been released from the pipe.”

The consent order also requires Colonial to begin sampling groundwater by Aug. 7 for five types of PFAS — perfluorinated compounds. As part of its emergency response to the original spill, Colonial Pipeline used a fire suppressant known as F-500 encapsulate to prevent vapors from the gasoline from igniting.

At the time of the accident, “DEQ was told [by Colonial] that the encapsulate used was PFAS-free,” agency spokeswoman Laura Leonard told Policy Watch in a story published last year.

Nonetheless, DEQ asked Colonial to test for PFAS in the suppressant because agency staff were aware of the potential for contamination based on other investigations, as well as the magnitude of the spill, Leonard said. “Out of an abundance of caution, DEQ collected — and directed Colonial to collect— samples of the encapsulate.”

Colonial’s test results of the “mixed” product — fire truck water and the F-500 — showed high levels of PFOSA: 4,810 ppt. Likewise, DEQ’s sampling showed high levels of PFOSA: 5,620 ppt. The water in the fire truck contained levels of the compounds below 1 ppt. It’s possible that residue from the hose or firefighting equipment contained PFAS; a type of firefighting foam, known as AFFF, contains high levels of the compounds.