Wood pellet plants harming eastern NC communities, sickening residents, critics say

Residents of some of the state's poorest areas on Wednesday criticized state leaders for offering incentives to the wood pellet industry to settle in their communities, polluting the air and water.

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Laura Leslie
, WRAL Capitol Bureau chief
RALEIGH, N.C. — Residents of some of the state’s poorest areas on Wednesday criticized state leaders for offering incentives to the wood pellet industry to settle in their communities, polluting the air and water.

Wood pellets are a fuel source made out of compressed pulp, and the manufacturing process creates a lot of fine dust in the air.

The European Union classifies wood pellets as a renewable energy resource, and they’re in high demand in EU countries, where they're burned to create electricity. North Carolina is the top exporter of wood pellets in the U.S.

The production plants are located in mostly Black communities in five of North Carolina's poorest counties. Community activists say that's an environmental justice issue.

"I consider our county as a dumping ground because everything that anybody else don’t want, this is where they bring it," said Belinda Joyner, a community activist in Northampton County, where an Enviva pellet plant is located.

Air pollution created by the plant is making people ill, Joyner said.

"How many people have to die?" she asked. "Profit over people, it has to stop."

The growing industry clear-cuts forests – about 60,000 acres a year in North Carolina alone – for the pulp to process.

Donna Chavis, from Robeson County, said she’s constantly amazed by the loss of forests. Her Lumbee community was hit hard by two major hurricanes in the last five years, and she said logging made the storm damage worse.

"Elders and farmers and homeowners testify to the impact added to the storms because of the loss of trees that have always served to mitigate the force of the storms and the flooding," Chavis said.

Industry officials said wood pellet production is sustainable and responsible and that companies operate within state law. The industry creates jobs for loggers, truckers and workers in rural areas where jobs are not plentiful, officials said.

"Enviva is committed to leading in sustainability and environmental compliance throughout our operations, and having a positive impact on the local communities where we operate is essential to that commitment," the company said in a statement. "While we respect freedom of expression and the right to protest, disinformation such as this from activist groups about our business is harmful to the common goals of fighting climate change and protecting public health.”

But Rev. Richie Harding, founder of Gaston Youth, said the health impact that comes with those jobs is too high a price to pay.

"Most of these facilities, they come into areas like mine: Black neighborhoods where people, they just aren't going to fight. They're tired of fighting over and over and over," Harding said.

The activists want Department of Environmental Quality regulators to take a tougher approach to the industry, and they want the state to stop subsidizing it – the industry has received at least $7 million in incentives to open and expand plants in North Carolina.

"The governor is strongly committed to a clean energy future for North Carolina," Ford Porter, a spokesman for Gov. Roy Cooper, said in an email to WRAL News. "He believes environmental and equity impacts on communities must be taken into account in job creation, and he expects government officials to rigorously follow the law when regulating this industry and its environmental impacts."

The activists held a protest at the Department of Administration building in downtown Raleigh on Wednesday afternoon, but it ended after they were unable to get inside.


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