The first time many of the residents of Lumberton, Robeson County, North Carolina, heard about plans of a company to build a polluting wood pellet facility in their neighborhood was when the NC Division of Air Quality (NC DAQ) issued an air quality permit. With just 30 days before the initially scheduled public hearing, and with news breaking of a global pandemic, residents scrambled to learn all they could about this new and untested industry that threatened to increase pollution for this already overburdened community.
Despite overwhelming public opposition from local residents, elected officials, professors, scientists, and environmental advocacy groups, Governor Cooper’s Division of Air Quality (NC DAQ) have permitted the operation of Active Energy Renewable Power (AERP), a black wood pellet facility in Robeson County, North Carolina.
This decision disregards local community recommendations, glaring environmental injustices, and climate science that requires us to protect forests, not cut them down for fuel. NC DAQ has allowed Robeson County to be a testing ground for this unpredictable technology.
The permitting of this facility is especially troubling against the backdrop of the current global pandemic that makes populations, such as the majority BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities of Robeson County, particularly vulnerable. This Administration and NC DAQ continue to fall short on their commitments to environmental justice and climate change, while rolling out the red carpet for polluting and carbon emitting industries.
On June 22nd, despite calls from local residents and elected officials to delay the hearing until after the COVID-19 emergency declaration, NC DEQ held a digital public hearing to receive public comments on the proposed AERP pellet mill. According to the hearing officer’s report, more than 125 people joined the virtual public hearing, and 44 people spoke with 39 opposed and 5 in favor of DAQ issuing the air permit. More than 1250 written comments were sent to NC DAQ. Of the written and oral comments received, more than 90% opposed DAQ granting the air permit. In response to requests from the local NAACP and other residents, NC DEQ issued an environmental justice report. In this report, they found the following:
- The racial composition of the immediate area shows a significantly larger proportion of African American residents (58% in two-mile buffer) when compared to the county and the state and a significantly larger proportion of Native American or Alaska Native residents (13% in the two mile buffer) compared to the state.
- Disability estimates for almost every population group at the census tract level are significantly higher than the state and, in many cases, the county rates as well. Poverty status is high in most surrounding neighborhoods.
- From a health perspective, out of all 100 counties in North Carolina (with 1 being the healthiest), Robeson County ranks 100th in health factors and 100th in health outcomes and demonstrates a higher rate of all causes of death than the rest of the state.
While noting these glaring inequalities and instances of environmental and racial injustice, NC DAQ does not attempt to address them beyond providing opportunities for public input.
Despite finding significantly larger populations of Black and Indigenous communities, and despite the fact that 90% of comments received were in opposition to the permit, NC DAQ still proceeded with issuing the permit.
Robeson County is one of the most frequently flooded counties in North Carolina. In 2018, largely in response to the hurricanes that devastated areas like Robeson County, Governor Cooper announced E080 – an executive order on climate change which set emission reduction goals for the state of North Carolina. Yet the Administration continues to permit the wood pellet industry despite evidence that industrial logging is the third largest emitter of carbon in the state (just behind electricity and transportation).
In permitting this facility, officials look solely to forest industry representatives – those who stand to gain the most from industrial logging – to define the qualities of a healthy forest. The Hearing Officer’s report replies to the many concerns about impacts on forests by stating that “The North Carolina Forest Service (NCFS)’s primary purpose is to ensure adequate and quality forest resources for the state… [and around Lumberton,] indicated that the timberland area is stable.” However, analyses like these fail to acknowledge the real and devastating impacts that continual pressure on forests exude.
Forests subjected to logging store significantly less carbon dioxide, and offer significantly less protection from floods and severe weather events than natural forests left standing. Standing forests are exceptionally important in low-lying, flood prone areas like Lumberton, which are hit repeatedly by hurricane and flooding events.
By allowing this facility to proceed, NC DEQ is rubber-stamping the destruction of critical green infrastructure.
Though the facility should’ve been denied on Environmental Justice concerns alone, it is telling that NC DEQ looks yet again to logging professionals to tell them that biomass facilities are appropriate use of forests.
North Carolina cannot meet the goals laid out in Executive Order 80, and in the resulting NC Climate Action Plan, without halting the expansion of bioenergy production in the state. Residents in eastern North Carolina, already plagued with high COVID-19 infection rates and large concentrations of polluting industries, will pay the price.
As Coronavirus cases continue to flare, and as communities like those in Robeson County gear up for hurricane season, our public officials should be doing everything possible to ensure the safety of NC residents. Instead, the Cooper Administration and NC DAQ are paving the way for continued inequity and degradation of our forests.
Dogwood Alliance and our partners will continue to fight this unjust decision at every step of the way. Tweet Governor Cooper and urge him to honor his promise and commit to creating green jobs for a healthy future.
Stay tuned for more ways you can take action in the near future.