About 10 years ago, Derb Carter, Senior Advisor and Attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SCLC), heard that Enviva Biomass, the world’s largest wood pellet producer, planned to build its first US pellet mill factory in Ahoskie, a small, economically depressed town of 5,000 people near the Virginia border. The company’s website said it would manufacture pellets using sawdust, limbs and residuals from timber harvests.
At the time, Carter was skeptical of the claims. “I thought there was no way to get a meaningful amount of energy from wood unless you substantially harvested forests all across the state,” he said. “So, they built their plant and the next thing I heard from a friend up there is that they were clear cutting bottomland hardwood swamps to supply the pellet mill.”
To see for himself, Carter took a trip to Ahoskie and his skepticism quickly turned to horror. He saw dozens of trucks loaded with massive piles of bottomland hardwood logs headed to the mill. “Basically, all of this began with a deception on the part of Enviva about what they were planning to do,” he says, referring to the state’s booming wood pellet industry.
Companies like Enviva and Drax are expanding rapidly in the southeast. They find ample forests, lax business regulations and shipping ports along the Atlantic coast.
The people of Ahoskie, the majority Black town in Hertford county, were promised a boost in the local economy with green energy jobs. They got about 50 direct jobs, local tree loss, noise around the clock, heavy traffic, air pollution, and combustible dust that threatens their health and the enjoyment of their homes.
Two years after Ahoskie, Enviva opened a new plant next door in Northampton County, which has similar demographics. They made similar promises and produced similar results.
In places where trees are replanted after being cut down, the wood industry is often promoted as being sustainable and it has widely been assumed that wood is carbon neutral. But economist John Talberth at the Center for Sustainable Economy says no one is counting the carbon emissions associated with logging because international rules on how this should be done are wildly inadequate.
“The accounting rules were written by loggers for loggers,” says Talberth. “That’s why you hear of agriculture as a big source of emissions, but not logging and wood products.”
A 2018 report by the Environmental Integrity Project found that 21 wood pellet mills emit thousands of tons of particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) per year, each of which are associated with a range of illnesses, from respiratory and heart disease to cancer. These wood pellet mills also emit 3.1 million tons of greenhouse gases per year.
All of this polluting and tree murder is done is for export to Europe which has committed to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and has, by and large, turned to biomass, fuel produced using plant or animal material. But getting the pellets there comes with a heavy carbon toll.
The wood pellets are transported by truck to the storage facility at the Port of Wilmington to travel across the Atlantic. The journey uses one roughly one gallon of polluting bunker fuel--pitch black, thick as molasses and loaded with sulfur--per 10 linear feet traveled.
To receive my articles directly via email, please subscribe. Like what you're reading? Please share this newsletter with your friends!