Guest Blog: Biomass and Environmental Justice Capstone

Guest Blog by Alysa Delgado

During our last spring semester, six fellow students and I worked together on a UNC Capstone course project with Dr. Andrew George, focused on bioenergy in the Carolinas. Though we were all students of the same program, we had varying sub-interests within the bioenergy umbrella. Some of these included life-cycle analysis, water and air quality effects, and landscape level changes. This presented our team with a challenge. Bioenergy production has so many hot conversation topics related to it—with seven different angles for approaching the bioenergy issue, how could we find a research question that was not only relevant, but as also the most feasible due to our inherent limitations of being a semester long class?

Though our views varied, we all kept coming back to how the known issues related to bioenergy production are affecting the people in the areas surrounding the facilities—the people, like us, of the Carolinas.

We looked into North Carolina’s Environmental Justice history. Beginning back in 1982 with the Warren County PCB case and continuing on through the work of Steve Wing, a UNC professor who focuses on the implications of hog farming within North Carolina, the rich dataset began to shape our project.  Though our search led us to several examples of hazardous waste affecting underrepresented communities, we could not seem to find a lot of information linking environmental justice and bioenergy. This gap within the literature, to all of us, seemed like an open door just ready to be entered, so we took the first steps.

map4blogFor scope, we kept it close to home looking at North and South Carolina. To discover what bioenergy facilities producing energy were present, we used the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) docket search. On the NCUC website, there is a compiled list of registered open and closed facilities. We limited our project search to those registered with the NCUC to gather a non-biased population size, as all of these projects obtained their operational status through the same process. In order to determine whether or not bioenergy facilities are contributing to potential environmental injustice within the Carolinas, we had to define what constitutes an environmental justice area. We mimicked a study completed by the Massachusetts State Government, as their project seemed rather progressive in the Environmental Justice field. They calculated Environmental Justice areas based on 3 fields: >25% non-white, average median income < the state average, and >25% English language isolation. Due to limitations of acquiring the English language isolation data, our EJ Areas are calculated using the first two fields.

 

What we found intrigued us; after sifting through information about all the projects, we had a compiled list of 76. Of these 76, about 74% (56) of facilities were within a 2-mile buffer of one of our calculated Environmental Justice areas. Of those projects, 68% (38) of them were located directly within a highlighted EJ area. With percentages that high, we eagerly wanted to learn more about the scale of this local Environmental Justice issue by incorporating some of our initial sub-interests—how many times have these facilities been non-compliant with the Clean Water Act?  How about the Clean Air Act?

How extreme of an Environmental Justice issue is bioenergy production for the Carolinas?

While enthusiastic to answer these pressing questions, the data available about each of the facilities that were located within our potential EJ areas was scarce, if not non-existent. However, from the limited data available, we found that some of the plants within our 2-mile buffer of an EJ area had high levels of pollution, one facility totaling 11 Clean Air Act high priority violations in the past 3 years and another being non-compliant with the Clean Water Act for 11 of the past 12 quarters.

These findings lead us to believe that there is much more information about the environmental injustice centered around bioenergy production in the Carolinas. Our project is just one of the first steps through the open door I mentioned earlier; with many more projects not registered under the NCUC to examine, along with the greater effects of the energy’s production from the entire lifecycle of creation to combustion, there is great opportunity to understand the issues, and prevent and further injustice that could come from the expanding industry.

Alysa Delgado is a new graduate student at the University of Alabama’s Department of Geography.

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