For most of us, especially folks living in the South, we see industrial air and water pollution expanding. We feel the negative health, environmental sustainability, and economic impacts across the region and beyond. Unfortunately, most policy makers haven’t gotten the memo. Why else would we continue to see the expansion of polluting, extractive industries like industrial logging and wood pellet manufacturing?
In the case of the wood pellet industry, the expansion has been substantial.
In just the US South, wood pellet exports have grown from 0.8 tons in 2011 to 7.4 tons of pellets exported in 2019.
The 40.2 million tons of wood pellets exported from 2011 – 2019 represent:
- Nearly a million acres impacted by harvests for wood pellets
- Over 95 million tons of CO2e released at combustion
If the current trend continues, approximately 762,000 additional tons of wood pellets will be exported each year. If the growth of this industry remains constant, that’s approximately 18,200 additional acres cut down each year.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t compare to what industry has in store for us. Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet producer, is currently trying to expand production limits at various plants in North and South Carolina. They have touted plans to build 3 new plants in Georgia and are constructing a plant in Lucedale, Mississippi.
When completed, the Mississippi plant alone will produce 1.5 million additional tons of pellets per year.
Enviva isn’t the only company in the game. A new group from Texas, the Renewable Biomass Group, has invaded Georgia. Their proposed new facility, if permitted, would add another 500,000 ton per year to the projected total.
In terms of industrial logging for the global timber trade, one study found that it represents an annual loss of $1.5 trillion USD in ecosystem services, which includes carbon sequestration. While the industry claims that plantations and harvested wood products store significant amounts of carbon, studies show that previously logged forests store only 55% of the carbon that an unlogged equivalent area does and that wood products lose carbon sequestration capacity every year after harvesting.
Looking at community health, permitting constraints on pollution throughout the South designates a certain amount of “allowable” pollution to be dumped into the community every day. Pellet mill pollutants, like fine particulates and volatile organic compounds, have been shown to cause cancer, asthma, and other lung diseases.
It’s no wonder people living near wood pellet manufacturing facilities report air quality so low that it irritates asthma, burns their eyes, and makes simple outdoor activities like gardening impossible – all of which does nothing for area property values.
It’s obvious that these industries damage both the health as well as the economic and environmental sustainability of communities across the South, so why aren’t our policy makers taking action?
Polluting industries invariably build their plants in environmental justice communities. These are low income, rural communities where at least 25% of the residents are People of Color. Residents are hungry for promised jobs. Local policy makers are happy to accommodate corporations that say they’ll create them, often to the point of destroying the community tax base in return for very few actual long term jobs.
State elected officials, when not influenced by forestry industry lobbyists and corporate donations, face multiple issues specific to their own state and may not have time to look at forestry issues deeply enough to connect the dots.
On the federal level, the importance of forest protection and its crucial role in climate protection have only recently garnered attention.
But in response to the work of citizen activists and environmental organizations like Dogwood Alliance, awareness and policy solutions are coming forward. In Georgia, the Stand4Forests resolution was introduced in both the state House and Senate. In North Carolina, Governor Cooper felt the anti-biomass pressure, and now biomass is completely excluded from the state’s clean energy future.
Citizens are ramping up action on the local level, Stand4Forest resolutions have been passed in various counties, biomass is being banned in more clean energy resolutions, and citizens are showing up at city council meetings to oppose new plants.
As we approach this election, from the top of the ticket down, electing officials who “get it” should be our priority. We need leadership that understands the connection between forests, climate, and justice and will work hard for a just and clean energy future. Now, it’s time to get out and VOTE!