Tour of Destruction: Following the Trail of the Newest Threat to Southern Forests
For the last couple years now, we’ve been tracking a new threat to our forests – bioenergy. Utility companies have been devising schemes to burn large amounts of wood from Southern forests for electricity. Recently, there has been an alarming increase in wood from our forests turned into pellets which are then shipped to Europe and burned for electricity by big utility companies to meet short sighted EU climate requirements. Currently there are 25 operational export pellet mills in the region with approximately 15 more planned across the South. Essentially, we are destroying our Southern forests so Europe can burn them to meet its climate goals, which are based on the mistaken blanket assumption that biomass energy is carbon neutral.
This is of course one of the most ridiculous schemes we have seen in years. Why would we burn the forests that are supposed to buffer us from climate change to fight climate change? Forests play a vital role in taking in Carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it which is then lost when it is logged and burned. Numerous studies have shown that burning wood is far from climate neutral and in fact may be worse for the climate than burning coal.
Last month, a colleague from Greenpeace, Larry Edwards, based up in Alaska joined me for a “Tour of Destruction,” where we visited and documented the impact that some of the biggest of these new facilities are having on our forests in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina where 5 facilities are currently in operation with 5 more planned for the future. The following is an account from our trip.
Days 1 and 2: Port of Savannah, Appling County Biomass in Baxley, GA, and Georgia Biomass in Waycross, GA
Our first stop was Savannah, Georgia where we hoped to check out the operations of Georgia Biomass, a subsidiary of RWE in Germany. We had two goals in Savannah, first to see the actual export facility of Georgia Biomass located at the Port of Savannah, where they plan to ship over 700,000 tons of wood pellets to their power plants in Belgium, UK, and the Netherlands. Our second goal was to visit their corporate offices, and gather information on their operations.
Sadly, both of these goals were a dead end. When we rang Georgia Biomass’ buzzer, they chose not to let us in and instead referred us to their website, which you can see here. And though we tried, we could not get access to the port to view the export operations because post September 11th security is high and access is limited to dockworkers only. We were not deterred and so decided to make our way south and visit Georgia Biomass pellet production facility first hand.
Our route took us through Appling County and the town of Baxley, Georgia, where we stopped at the Appling County Biomass facility which is a subsidiary of Fram, a “renewable” energy company owned by a Norwegian shipping magnate. This facility has a planned capacity of nearly 300,000 tons of pellet production a year for export to Europe. We sat in the parking lot, watching truck after truck come in and drop off loads of wood chips and tree residuals (which include tree tops and branches which are traditionally left on the forest floor) which were being processed into wood pellets for the Northern European market. Unable to get an official tour, we witnessed everything firsthand from the parking lot. It was clear that this facility was utilizing every last drop of wood it could claim from the local market.
From Baxley, we made our way further south to Waycross, Georgia, the northern gateway to one of the most biodiverse hotspots in the South, the famed Okefenokee Swamp. As we were entering town, we noticed a lot of log trucks making their way on the roads, but still had no idea what was to come. Eventually we made it over to the business park that hosts Georgia Biomass, a wholly owned subsidiary of RWE (one of Europe’s largest utility companies), currently the largest stand-alone wood pellet manufacturing facility in the world, projected to produce nearly 750,000 tons of wood pellets every year.
The brand new facility is incredibly shiny and modern; putting a clean façade on a very dirty business. It looked like a chip mill on a mega-dose of steroids. It is a “fully integrated” facility, meaning whole trees are debarked, chipped and processed into pellets on site. A rail line runs straight into the facility for easy shipping by train to the company’s port in Savannah, Georgia where the pellets are loaded onto bulk-carrier ships and sent to Europe.
What was most striking was the sheer volume of trees from fully loaded log trucks entering the gate and being unloaded into giant piles to be processed. We watched countless trucks enter the facility. Larry put it best when he said that it was analogous to bees swarming to a hive. Despite all of the claims that pellet and bioenergy companies make about sustainability, it was clear that this is a voracious industry that will swallow up as many trees as it can get. With other large pellet manufacturers planning facilities in Virginia and North and South Carolina, the RWE plant was a portent of bad things to come if someone doesn’t pull the brakes.
Day 3: Okefenokee Swamp, Varn Industries in Hoboken, Georgia, Low Country Biomass in Ridgeland, SC and Charleston, SC
After the depressing stops in Baxley and Waycross, GA, we needed to take in a little bit of wild nature to get some much needed inspiration, so we made our way to Okefenokee Swamp Park south of Waycross. It was absolutely beautiful and was a great opportunity to see what much of the coastal plain in the South used to look like with forested wetlands, longleaf pine savannahs, and unique plants and animals found nowhere else in North America.
At the park we took a walk into the woods to spot gators, spiders, and countless plants and then took a boat ride, so we could experience the swamp firsthand. It was well worth the visit, not only for the wildlife, but for the opportunity to meet locals who’ve called this region home for generations and truly care about protecting and preserving this national treasure. Feeling refreshed, we headed out and made our way north.
Okefenokee Swamp, a jewel of the Southern US, but threatened by growing biomass industry all around its edges.
On our way from Waycross to Augusta, we passed through Hoboken, Georgia. Hoboken is home to Varn Industries, a large sawmill and lumber manufacturer that processes excess wood not suitable for lumber into wood chips. Varn is also planning to add a wood pellet processor producing 80,000 tons of pellets per year to its already massive sawmill facility. Though the pellet mill is not yet operational, the proximity to both the Georgia Biomass facility and the Okefenokee Swamp could mean added pressure to the local forests. The future of highly degraded South Georgia forests is dependent on decreased pressure on the woods to allow for restoration especially in corridors leading to the swamp. Instead, all over South Georgia, we saw first-hand that corporations are ramping up massive new capacity which will minimize any chance for future restoration.
We stopped next in Ridgeland, SC, home to a relatively new small-scale wood pellet facility called Low Country Biomass owned by Nimmer Turf Company. It was such a small facility, in a non-descript building, that we drove right past it and had to stop someone on the street to find out where it was. The small facility is planning to produce around 40,000 tons of pellets a year, and is presently running at one-quarter that capacity. The long range goal is 100,000 tons yearly. The raw materials are local saw mill residue and locally grown miscanthus, a non-native grass species.
The reason we didn’t spot the facility was because instead of piles of trees or wood chips, there were just a few bales of hay sitting in front of the plant, and there was no visible activity. I can’t pretend to fully understand the implications of introducing a non-native grass species to the local area. What I do know is that at least it is being done by a company that specializes in growing grass and there are no plans to convert forests to miscanthus plantations. That said, this is a development to watch and in meeting one of the owners I felt a lot less concerned than I did after visiting the facilities in Baxley and Waycross.
From here we headed to Charleston, where we overcame our disappointment once again at not being able to access a port to see the container ships sending pellets to Europe, by having a really fun night. A special thanks to the kind folks at Not So Hostel for putting us up for the night and being so accommodating.
Days 4 and 5: Francis Marion National Forest in SC, Georgetown, SC, and the Green Swamp in Southeastern NC
After a relaxing night in Charleston, we headed north to Francis Marion National Forest to see some of the amazing biodiversity and get a better sense of what is at stake from the threat of a growing bioenergy industry. We took the I’on Swamp trail which takes you through a section of low country swamp complete with old ditches and embankments that had been set up for use in old rice plantations. Besides the endless stream of mosquitos it was a beautiful section of swamp with countless birds sharing their songs and incredible wild nature to inspire us.
After a night visiting family, we set off out to the Green Swamp in southeastern NC. The Green Swamp is a real biological gem, home to countless species found nowhere else on the planet, including seven different species of carnivorous plants. Sadly, the Swamp has been greatly degraded by a long history of ditching and draining of historic wetlands for agriculture and pine plantations for the paper industry. Now it is smack dab in the middle of the sourcing area of two proposed new bioenergy facilities in Lumberton and Elizabethtown, North Carolina.
I took Larry here for two reasons. Firstly, so he could experience large-scale industrial logging in our region first hand. Sadly, you can’t drive more than a few miles in the Green Swamp without seeing an active logging job or recent clearcuts that extend hundreds of acres. Secondly, to visit the world famous Green Swamp Preserve, a nature reserve owned by the Nature Conservancy that is home to Venus flytraps, sundews and three different species of pitcher plants. We were successful on both fronts.
We walked into a clearcut so that he could get a feel for the shocking scope of industrial forest management on the landscape and the pain associated with the destruction of forested wetlands. Additionally, we followed a logging truck to an active job so he could see the heavy machinery at work, in this case a skidder, and watching truck after truck exiting the site with full loads.
Thankfully, the Green Swamp Preserve helped to mitigate some of the psychic pain associated with all of the destruction. While wandering around the 14,000 acre tract, we magically stumbled upon an international tour being hosted by a friend from the NC Sarracenia Society. Folks from around the world who had just been at a carnivorous plant conference in Boston travelled all of the way to the Green Swamp to see the amazing plants. They invited us to tag along, and we were able to see all that this amazing place had to offer. It was a great way to finish what had been an arduous and often hurtful journey.
Conclusion: This is a Huge New Threat, and Dogwood Alliance Will Address It
We are incredibly proud of all that we’ve achieved through our 15 years of increasing protection for millions of acres of forests across the Southern US. Sadly, just when we thought we had a moment to breathe with the slow and steady progress we had catalyzed in transforming the pulp and paper industry into better stewards, a new threat has come on the scene in the form of the large-scale burning of southern Forests for energy. Thankfully, communities and environmental activists across the region have won great victories, but now we need to prepare for the latest and greatest threat.
Over the coming months we will be setting our sights on the bioenergy industry – talking to allies, further documenting both beauty and destruction, and preparing to take on some of the largest utility companies in the world to stop this new threat before it’s too late. We look forward to working with each and every one of you on saying “no” to more Southern forest destruction and saying “yes” to a truly clean, green renewable energy future instead! Stay tuned…