Biomass Threatens Vulnerable Communities

Marginalised communities around the world—but especially in the U.S. Southeast—are paying the price for the UK’s continued reliance on biomass energy, including impoverished communities and communities of color.

 

Wood pellet manufacturing plants or “pellet mills”—where trees are processed into wood pellets to be burned—are 50% more likely to be sited in economically depressed areas of color. These same communities are disproportionately targeted for the siting of other dirty industries, such as coal and natural gas plants, waste-to-energy plants, and landfills.

Homes in Gloster, Mississippi, situated just yards from Drax's Amite wood pellet processing site.

Pellet mills emit hazardous or toxic air pollutants that are known to cause cancer and other serious health impacts even at relatively small amounts. A 2018 report by the Environmental Integrity Project found that 21 wood pellet mills exporting to the European Union emit thousands of tons of fine particulate matter or PM2.5 (fine dust), carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides (smog), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) every year, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency associates with illnesses ranging from respiratory and heart disease to cancer to slowed lung function in children.

 

While each of these pollutants has serious health or environmental impacts, PM2.5 is especially harmful to human health, causing up to 200,000 excess deaths in the United States every year. PM2.5 consists of tiny airborne particles that can pass deep into a person’s lungs and even into the bloodstream, causing heart attacks, decreased lung function, worsening asthma symptoms, and leading to premature death, especially among people of color. In Northampton County, North Carolina, where the world’s largest pellet producer, Enviva, owns a pellet mill, more than one in ten adults suffered from asthma in 2018 and residents describe a constant cloud of dust flowing from the plant onto their homes, cars, gardens, and into their lungs.

Rally during the Save our Southern Forests tour in Chesapeake, Virginia. Belinda Joyner (center) takes the mic to share the story of community impacts by Enviva in her home of Garysburg, N.C. (Dogwood Alliance)
Rally against biomass exports in Wilmington, North Carolina (Dogwood Alliance)

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) found that African Americans who live near biomass power plants are more likely to suffer from increased exposure to many dangerous emissions, such as smog, asbestos, sulfur dioxide, and other toxins, than any other racial group in America. For this reason, several southern chapters of the NAACP opposed the siting of wood pellet production facilities in their communities, with one Georgia chapter stating that the siting of such a facility in their community was “a clear cut example of environmental racism.”

“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.”
—Rev. Richie Harding, founder of Gaston Youth

Despite these horrible health impacts on nearby communities, one-third of pellet mills in the U.S. South were in violation of emissions limitations set in their permits in 2017, according to the Environmental Integrity Project report. In fact, violations of air quality laws have resulted in numerous enforcement actions, fines, and community-led lawsuits against pellet mills in the U.S. Southeast. For example, Drax has been cited for serious air quality violations at all three of its U.S. pellet mills and was fined $2.5 million dollars at one of these mills for air pollution three times above the legal limit.

The logging of forests around the pellet mills is also concerning because of the critical ecosystem services the trees provide to surrounding communities. Trees remove nutrients and other pollutants from water, meaning logging is negatively impacting water quality in marginalized communities. Intensive logging in these areas also leaves nearby communities more vulnerable to increasingly frequent extreme weather events caused by climate change.

 

Forests—particularly wetland forests like the ones being logged for biomass in the U.S. Southeast—act as storm buffers, shielding communities from floods and hurricanes. Without these trees, nearby communities are unprotected. For example, Northampton County residents say that two-inch rains now spike flood waters as much as a four-inch rain did a decade ago. Reports from the Cape Fear River—downstream from Enviva’s Sampson, North Carolina, plant—have reported similar findings, with local river guide Charles Robbins stating: “The storms are getting stronger, yes, but there’s also a lot fewer trees to pull water from the river.”

Resources

Explore these links to discover more about the impacts of biomass on local communities.

Europe’s Green Energy Is Stripping US Communities of Green Forests

NAACP: Resolution in Opposition to Wood Pellets Manufacturing and Use of Wood-Bioenergy

How Marginalized Communities in the South Are Paying the Price for ‘Green Energy’ in Europe

Siting of Wood Pellet Production Facilities in Environmental Justice Communities in the Southeastern United States

Wood Pellet Plants Harming Eastern NC Communities, Sickening Residents, Critics Say

ABC News: Impoverished communities pay for worsening impacts of climate change: Experts

Europe’s Wood Pellet Market Is Worsening Environmental Racism in the American South

PM2.5 Polluters Disproportionately and Systemically Affect People of Color in the United States

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP): “Just Energy Policies: Reducing Pollution and Creating Jobs.”

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About Us

Cut Carbon Not Forests is a campaign to remove subsidies from companies that burn trees for electricity, co-ordinated by a coalition of UK and US-based NGOs. Join us in asking the Government to redirect biomass subsidies to real clean and renewable energy.

To contact the CCNF coalition: [email protected]

 

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