Conservationists' report links NC pellet mills with wetland clear-cutting

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comAugust 27, 2013 

Sensitive wetland forests in northeastern North Carolina are threatened by Europe’s voracious appetite for wood pellets, two environmental groups say in a new report that targets the Enviva pellet mill in Ahoskie.

The report warns that wetland hardwoods around Ahoskie are more likely to undergo industrial-style logging because Enviva has created a new market for low-value trees that would not have been cut down in the past.

“Their demand for whole trees from these forests is driving the clear-cutting of these forests,” said Debbie Hammel, a senior resource specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, based in San Francisco.

The NRDC and the Asheville-based Dogwood Alliance criticize Enviva, the nation’s biggest pellet maker, in a report that includes maps of ecologically sensitive forests near Ahoskie.

Enviva draws on timber from roughly a 75-mile radius to make pellets for shipment to the United Kingdom and Europe, where electric utilities burn the pellets for fuel. UK and European environmental policies are driving electric utilities to use imported wood in their boilers instead of coal.

Based in Maryland, Enviva produces 865,000 tons of pellets a year in mills at Ahoskie and Garysburg. The company plans to build two more mills in southeastern North Carolina that will produce an additional 1 million tons a year.

Woodland owners sell their best trees to saw mills to make lumber, furniture and flooring. Enviva pays lower prices for low-quality wood that has had few buyers in the Ahoskie area since the shutdown a few years ago of a pulpwood mill in nearby Franklin, Va.

A spokeswoman said the company supports sustainable logging practices.

“Enviva’s principal sources of raw material are exactly what folks like NRDC and the Dogwood Alliance are calling for – tops, limbs, residuals and other parts of the harvest that are unsuitable for sawmilling because of small size, disease or other defects,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Woodworth said in a prepared statement. “The tracts from which we procure this low-grade and by-product fiber are working forests where landowners grow trees in order to cut, sell to multiple markets, and regrow them.”

Enviva and some foresters say healthy markets for timber encourage woodland owners to keep planting more trees, which will absorb more carbon from the air. They say a landowner unhappy with the economic return from forestry is more likely to cut down the trees and divert the land to farming or development.

Some conservationists argue that the European environmental policy is based on faulty calculations that classify wood pellets as a sustainable fuel source because new trees can be grown to replace the ones burned as pellets. They cite studies that rate wood pellets “dirtier than coal” on the basis of carbon emissions and other pollutants.

The NRDC-Dogwood Alliance report highlights wetland forests that Hammel said have provided timber for Enviva. Alan Weakley, a UNC Chapel Hill ecologist who helped produce the forest maps, said these lands promote water quality and support a variety of wildlife.

“Hardwood wetland forests play a vital role in maintaining biodiversity in this eco-region, and increased industrial logging in these forests can have significant, negative impacts,” Weakley, who heads the UNC Herbarium, said in a news release accompanying the report.

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown. On Twitter @Road_Worrier.

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