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NC pellet plant wants to expand, but some worry about emissions

081522 Enviva Ahoskie-Impacted communities against wood pellets.jpg
Impacted Communities Against Wood Pellets Coalition
A logging truck enters the Enviva plant at Ahoskie, in Hertford County.

The world's largest producer of wood pellets wants to expand production at a plant in eastern North Carolina — and to emit more greenhouse gases.

Maryland-based Enviva cuts trees and turns them into wood pellets, which are shipped to Europe where they are burned for energy. The company has 10 plants across the Southeast, including four in North Carolina.

Enviva wants state permission to expand production in Ahoskie, in Hertford County, by 31%, from 481,800 tons a year to 630,000 tons. That would boost emissions of carbon, dust and other air pollutants, which is raising concerns among environmental justice advocates.

Hertford is one of the state's poorest counties. It's 61% African American and includes members of the Meherrin Tribe. Hannah Jeffries is a tribe member.

"This massive increase means more forest destruction, more dangerous truck traffic on rural roads and more dust pollution. The forest destruction will take place in historic tribal lands of the Meherrin people," Jeffries said Monday in a briefing by the Impacted Communities Against Wood Pellets Coalition.

Jeffries and others plan to speak at a state Department of Environmental Quality public hearing in Ahoskie Tuesday night. Comments also are being accepted online through Friday.

Enviva is proposing to add pollution control equipment to win the permit. Specifically, the company plans to add what are called thermal oxidizers, which it says would reduce emissions to sufficient levels to qualify as a minor source of emissions.

Enviva spokesperson Maria Moreno said in an email that the proposed expansion will improve Enviva's environmental performance: "Enviva’s Hertford County plant has been in operation since 2011, employs 83 associates and has a positive economic impact of more than $150 million a year in the community. The continued investment of capital and resources by Enviva into the plant demonstrates our strong environmental leadership in the biomass industry our commitment to North Carolina and its communities."

Emily Zucchino of the Dogwood Alliance, an Asheville-based environmental group, said the alliance has issues with technical aspects of Enviva's permit application. One concern is emissions of a hazardous pollutant called acrolein, which is expected to be double what the EPA allows, though below NC standards.

The alliance also says it believes Enviva is underestimating hazardous air pollutants to avoid more stringent emission limits under the Clean Air Act.

A state environmental justice review noted the area's poverty and high representation of people of color, but recommended only that residents be informed of Enviva's plans.

The plant in Ahoskie, in Hertford County, was the company's first. The expansion comes as the company is in the midst of a five-year plan to double production capacity.

At the same time, scientists and activists are urging regulators in Europe and the U.S. to rethink the strategy of using wood pellets to replace coal.

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.