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Black Wood Pellet Plant In Lumberton Raises Questions Of Environmental Justice

Active Energy Group
Production of black wood pellets has not been commercially tested in the U.S.

The Active Energy Renewable Power Company is waiting for approval of an air quality permit from state regulators for North Carolina’s first “black” wood pellet plant. A decision is expected before the end of next month. 

Opponents of the Lumberton plant are raising questions about air pollution and environmental justice issues in one of the poorest counties in the state. 


Active Energy Renewable Power says it will produce “black” wood

pellets by pressurizing chipped wood with steam. Water used in the process would go to the plant’s wastewater treatment facility before being discharged into the Cape Fear River. 


That part of the process requires no permit.  

While the North Carolina Division of Air Quality finds that no toxic air pollutants exceed the toxic permitting emission rates, opponents aren’t so sure.    

At a public hearing earlier this week, Heather Hillacker, an Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, argued that the DAQ’s testing requirements are inadequate. 


"It is readily apparent from the application documents that neither the company nor DEQ have any idea what the actual emissions of this facility will be.  In some instances, DEQ appears to have accepted the company’s unsupported assertions regarding particular emissions." 

That’s specifically relevant for acrolein and formaldehyde – two state toxic air pollutants that she says are not accurately accounted for in the draft permit.  

Reverend Mac Legerton of the Robeson County Cooperative for Sustainable Development agrees.  


"This process of making black wood pellets has never been commercially tested in the United States. It's important because then our state regulators have no metrics to evaluate what the company is saying about the pollution levels and the levels of toxic chemicals that are being released in the process."

With no “black” wood pellet plants yet in operation, Division of Air Quality engineers used emissions information from white wood pellet facilities to provide an estimated emissions profile.

Reverend Legerton says that’s like mixing apples and oranges.


"And we don't know anything about the oranges. The same thing -- we didn’t know anything about GenX." 

Belinda Joyner, a resident of Northampton County where Enviva operates a white wood pellet plant, also spoke at the public hearing.  She said pollutants and particulate matter from the nearby plant have made people prisoners in their own homes. 


"People are not able to come out in their yards and work in their gardens for their nose running, can’t have cookouts for the particulates and the dust that’s coming from Enviva.  We’re a Black community.  And it’s sad, DEQ and DAQ, that our taxpayer dollars pay you all to bring stuff into our community to kill us."

Robeson County is a Tier 1 county – which means it has one of the highest poverty rates in the state. 


Erin Carey of the North Carolina Sierra Club says DAQ should deny the permit – in part because of the Environmental Justice concerns.  

"No good can come of this wood pellet facility.  The population in this community is 38% American Indian, 25% African American and 5% Latino / Hispanic. 


"At a time in this country when the treatment of Brown and Black people by our institutions has been exposed in sharp relief, it is unwise and unjust to proceed with this permit process without a full environmental justice report."

Sharon Martin, Deputy Secretary for Public Affairs at DEQ tells WHQR that the Environmental Justice assessment informed the DEQ’s outreach strategy.  That included additional outreach and "special measures to include residents in the process while observing the health guidelines to protect public health from the spread of COVID-19." 

DEQ Officials say public comments from the Monday hearing and the extended comment period will be considered before the permit decision – expected within 30 days of the June 22nd public hearing.  


The public comment period closes at 5 pm Friday, June 26, 2020.

To submit a comment, send an email to DAQ.publiccoments@ncdenr.gov. Please type “Active Energy Renewable Power ” in the subject line.   (Also note DAQ has one "m" in comments.)


Or leave a voicemail message at (919) 707-8714. 

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.