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Injustice in Northampton: what happens when a giant wood pellet factory moves into your backyard

Sasha Stashwick

Posted March 17, 2014 in Environmental Justice, Solving Global Warming

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Most of us will never know what it’s like to have a giant wood pellet factory move into our neighborhood. Unfortunately, the community of Northampton County, North Carolina isn’t so lucky. 

A new video, Injustice in Northampton, produced by our partners at the Dogwood Alliance for the Our Forests Aren’t Fuels campaign, shows what happened to residents when Enviva built a new wood pellet mill in their backyard.

Round-the-clock noise, sleepless nights, dangerous traffic, health concerns and unending dust mark the very real community impacts of the booming wood pellet industry in the Southeastern US. 

The region has become the world’s largest exporter of wood pellets. Most of these pellets are destined to be loaded onto ships, transported across the ocean, and burned in European power plants to make electricity—known as biomass energy—that power companies call “green”. 

With the help of organizations like Clean Water for North Carolina, the residents of Northampton have begun to document these impacts and organize to get the attention of state regulators. You can read more about their efforts here.

But even if we don’t live near a pellet mill, the environmental impacts of the biomass energy industry touch us all.

Far from the “green” energy touted by the industry, biomass can be a very dirty business. To churn out all those pellets, companies like Enviva source trees and other woody material from forests. You can see aerial footage of what that looks like at the start of the video. Not pretty. 

Burning trees to make electricity releases more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than burning fossil fuels like coal. It also threatens our forests’ ability to suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, one of the best tools we have in the first against climate change. It also threatens some of our most valuable and biologically diverse natural forests.

Our forests are the places where we hike, camp, hunt and fish with our families, not fuel for wood pellet manufacturers and power companies. We need to replace our coal fired power plants with energy efficiency and clean power, not dirty biomass. Electricity generated from short-rotation crops, wood waste and reclaimed wood, and timber harvest residues (tops and branches) has the potential to reduce carbon emissions. Together with investments in real clean energy like solar, wind and geothermal, these resources are the 21st century energy system we need to bring down emissions to levels that avoid the worst consequences of climate change. 

In 2014, we can do better than burning trees for energy. The health and safety of our communities depends on it.  

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Comments

AnonymousMar 18 2014 12:11 PM

While I understand the concern that these citizens have, I think there is a lack of understanding about what a forest actually requires to thrive. "Pristine" forest, DOES NOT EXIST. It never has existed. All forests everywhere have been managed, changed, grown, destroyed, since the beginning of mankind. the forest is not separate from man, it is a symbiotic relationship.
Creating wood pellets from fresh trees, I agree, is not a great thing. Using wastewood is, and perhaps the wood pellet co in North Hampton is not conducting themselves correctly, but biomass is a renewable energy source that is a good alternative to coal. Solar, wind and geothermal are no innocents either. Solar fields require large areas of land killing and destroying ecosystems. Wind farms hurt bird populations. There are downsides to everything.

I just think that this article is lacking in all aspects of this industry. I think the information about this particular case is good, but just because there is one bad apple, doesnt mean the whole bunch is bad. There are pros and cons to everything. I think it should all be laid out.

Gerald QuindryMar 18 2014 02:58 PM

For a perspective from the other side of the pond, the London Daily Mail has covered this same story. British citizens pay a huge price for renewable energy from wood chips, and, as demonstrated in the article below, to no environmental benefit. An example of good intentions and poorly structured regulations gone bad.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2581887/The-bonfire-insanity-Woodland-shipped-3-800-miles-burned-Drax-power-station-It-belches-CO2-coal-huge-cost-YOU-pay-cleaner-greener-Britain.html

Of course, we do no better -- building PV solar systems in New York, that hide in the dark or twilight more than half the time, and are buried beneath snow or partially covered with dirt a fair part of the rest. (/sarcasm alert) But it FEELS like we are doing something good for the environment, and feeling good is what's important, right? (/sarc off)

Jon WhiteMar 24 2014 12:00 AM

The exploitation of southeastern US forests for wood pellets for fuel is a serious issue that has stayed under the radar for the most part. The notion that this is a renewable use of forests is not borne out by the facts. It is exploitive, destructive and leads to long term degradation of the forest environment. With respect to the comments above, nobody is describing these as pristine forests. That is a straw man. Virtually all of the eastern NC forests are secondary growth. Most are on lands that were once farmed or at the very least used as woodlots. But the level of industrial use of these forests is unprecedented. Lip service is given to management, but the reality is a broad-based degradation leading to depleted and eroded soils, loss of diversity and conversion of the forests to smaller and smaller stemmed trees harvested at an ever increasing rate. Pelletized wood is the most egregious exploitation yet conceived.

Jon WhiteMar 24 2014 04:04 PM

Btw - see the link for additional related discussion -
"41 Scientists Warn Obama Admin Against Burning Trees To Produce Electricity" at http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/11/30/3005441/epa-biomass-forest-carbon/

And at " Louisiana forests being sacrificed to fuel Europe's biomass boom" http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/1/16/green-energy-demandineuropemaybethreateningamericanforests.html

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