‘Godsend’ or threat to forests? NC weighs expansion of wood pellet mill

A proposed state air pollution permit would allow Enviva to increase production 22 percent at its wood pellet mill off Interstate 40 near Faison in Sampson County.
A proposed state air pollution permit would allow Enviva to increase production 22 percent at its wood pellet mill off Interstate 40 near Faison in Sampson County. rstradling@newsobserver.com

This story has been revised to correct the spelling of Emily Zucchino’s last name.

A public hearing on an air pollution permit for a wood pellet plant in Sampson County on Monday night became a wide-ranging forum on the environmental effects of the industry and the reputation of the plant’s owner, Enviva, in North Carolina.

The company and its supporters say the wood pellets it creates to burn in power plants in Europe are a renewable resource and a way to help combat climate change. They also say the trees Enviva buys for its three mills in North Carolina have helped make it possible for owners to keep their land in forests, rather than convert it to some other use.

“For timber growers, Enviva’s been a godsend,” said Ashley Faircloth, a forestry consultant from Jacksonville.

But opponents contend that when you factor in the loss of the trees and the energy used in production and shipping, wood pellets are actually worse for the environment than the coal they replace. They repeatedly urged the state to halt the expansion of the industry in North Carolina and heed Executive Order 80, Gov. Roy Cooper’s call to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We must reduce emissions, not only in North Carolina but throughout this entire country,” said Rev. Leo Woodberry, a pastor from South Carolina speaking for two environmental groups. “And we cannot do that by cutting down our forests.”

The Division of Air Quality officials who held the hearing at Sampson Community College tried to head off such a broad discussion. They said at the outset that their concern was limited to the new air pollution permit for Enviva’s plant near Faison, which opened just off Interstate 40 in October 2016.

But the permit would allow Enviva to increase production at the plant by 22 percent, to 657,000 tons of dried wood pellets a year, which prompted much of the criticism Monday.

“Any expansion of the industry is incompatible with North Carolina’s climate and environmental goals,” said Rachel Weber of Durham, a board member of Dogwood Alliance, an Asheville-based group that has long criticized the wood pellet industry. “I urge you to deny this application, and I urge the administration to place a moratorium on the expansion of the wood pellet industry.”

Approval likely

The Division of Air Quality is poised to approve the emissions permit, which Michael Pjetraj, the deputy director, said would be among the most stringent for a pellet plant in the country.

“I don’t know who would be against it,” said Yana Kravtsova, Enviva’s vice president of environmental affairs. “It’s an existing plant, and we’re installing additional air emissions controls.”

Daniel Parkhurst, the policy manager for the advocacy group Clean Air Carolina, acknowledged that the new permit would reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds, a class of chemicals that can harm human health.

“However, this permit will actually increase greenhouse gas emissions and particulate matter emissions, both exacerbated by clear-cutting” of trees, Parkhurst said.

There were also differences over the effect of pellet mills on forests in North Carolina. Opponents spoke of clear-cutting, the loss of wildlife habitat and the role forests play in keeping air clean and absorbing heavy rain from hurricanes and other storms.

But representatives of forestry groups noted that nearly 83 percent of the estimated 18.8 million acres of forest land in North Carolina is privately owned, and many of those landowners need markets for their trees to keep growing them.

“You need to have a strong market, that keeps a business going, that keeps a community going, to support the natural resource and to have people invest in that natural resource,” said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Carolina Loggers Association. “That’s how we grow.”

Barry New of the N.C. Forest Service said the state’s forest land has remained stable since the 1930s, despite population growth of about 7 million people. New said that within 75 miles of Enviva’s Sampson County plant, net growth of trees has outpaced removals by 50 percent in the last five years.

Enviva’s chief sustainability officer, Jennifer Jenkins, said the company doesn’t contribute to deforestation.

“We simply don’t purchase wood on a tract that will not return to forest immediately post-harvest,” Jenkins said.

Opponents of the pellet industry are dismissive of the company’s claims. They say Enviva was caught accepting hardwood timber from sensitive wetland forests in the past and has fought stricter air emissions standards. Along with a moratorium on expanding the wood pellet industry, they want the state to study its effects on North Carolina.

“NCDEQ has an obligation to protect the people and the environment of North Carolina,” said Emily Zucchino, a Dogwood Alliance member from Asheville. “But the Cooper administration and this Department of Environmental Quality have allowed Enviva to expand unchecked in North Carolina with no proper analysis of this industry’s impact on our forests, our climate and our communities.”

This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Emily Zucchino’s last name.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.