The biomass bait-and-switch: From scraps to whole trees


This was both predictable and preventable:

Several Enviva mills were soon processing material from logging sites and sawmills throughout the region. Environmental groups say they have documented truckloads of logs and whole trees, not just leftovers, entering pellet mills. Publicly available images show logs stacked at mills, and a reporter outside a pellet mill entrance saw trucks of logs entering.

Pellet makers’ pledges to rely on waste wood “painted them into a corner,” said Robert Abt, a forest economist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, because the wood-products industry already used its supplies relatively efficiently, leaving little waste.

Around 2009 or so I got into a protracted (online) debate with an NC State grad student about burning biomass as a replacement for coal. I could not get him to admit that, eventually, the industry would grow to the point it would need to consume whole trees instead of detritus. Which he stubbornly claimed would be "more than enough" to satisfy demands. But aside from the deforestation issues, the environmental justice impact of these plants is horrendous:

In 2013, Kathy Claiborne got a noisy new neighbor. That’s when a huge factory that dries and presses wood into roughly cigarette-filter-sized pellets roared to life near her tidy home in one of the state’s poorest counties. On a recent afternoon in her front yard, near the end of a cul-de-sac, the mill rumbled like an uncomfortably close jet engine.

“I can’t even recall the last time I had a good night’s sleep,” said Ms. Claiborne, who in 2009 moved to the neighborhood, which is majority African-American. She wears a mask outdoors, she said, because dust from the plant can make it hard to breathe.

In barely a decade, the Southeast’s wood pellet industry has grown from almost nothing to 23 mills with capacity to produce more than 10 million metric tons annually for export.

Pellet mills, which can emit volatile organic compounds and other hazardous air pollutants, are 50 percent more likely to be located near “environmental justice-designated” communities, defined as counties with above-average poverty levels and a population that’s at least 25 percent nonwhite, according to an analysis by the Dogwood Alliance, an environmental nonprofit based in Asheville.

Permits have been filed for a dozen new pellet mills, mostly in Gulf Coast states, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center, Mr. Carter’s organization. Enviva’s newest corporate office is in Tokyo; the company expects Asian countries to eventually buy roughly half its pellets, according to a spokeswoman.

Just to give you an idea of the noise, this recording looks like about 1 1/2 miles away from this plant in Michigan that went online in December 2011:

It's why plants like this usually end up in African-American communities, people who don't have the "clout" to stop it from happening.