Where is NC Governor Cooper when it comes to protecting our forests and rural communities from the destructive wood pellet biomass industry?
That was the big question at the Where’s Cooper press conference and demonstration on May 26th. Despite the pandemic, demonstrators showed up to put public pressure on Governor Cooper and his administration to follow through on promises to address climate change and advance environmental justice. Frontline community leaders gathered at the NC legislature to speak out about the harms their communities face from the wood pellet biomass industry. Environmental organizations joined alongside them in calling for action.
Emily Zucchino, Dogwood Alliance’s Director of Community Engagement said,
“Governor Cooper and his Administration cannot follow through on their promises on climate change and environmental justice while continuing to support the wood pellet industry.”
The wood pellet industry in the Southern US is growing to meet European and Asian energy demands. We cut down our forests here, grind them up in mills predominantly located in environmental justice communities, and turn them into wood pellets before being shipped overseas to be burned for fuel. This is all part of the dirty biomass scheme that calls itself green while being worse for our climate than coal.
During Cooper’s first term, frontline community members and environmental organizations gave him detailed evidence of the forest, climate, and pollution impacts of the wood pellet industry. The Governor responded by excluding wood pellets from the 2019 NC Clean Energy Plan, and he acknowledged some of their impacts. In spite of this, Governor Cooper has not addressed the rapidly expanding wood pellet export market.
In fact, under Governor Cooper’s leadership, North Carolina has become the largest exporter of wood pellets in the nation.
The NC Clean Energy Plan states: “Currently, the wood pellet industry does not contribute to NC’s energy generation portfolio and does not advance NC’s clean energy economy.” In spite of this cautious and critical view, the state has provided over $7 million in subsidies to support and expand this industry. The Enviva wood pellet facilities clearcut over 60,000 acres per year and are all cited in low-income (Tier 1) communities of color. Tier 1 is a designation applied to the state’s 40 most economically distressed counties. The rapid expansion of the controversial wood pellet industry has occurred in the state without any meaningful public or policy discourse.
Donna Chavis of Friends of the Earth said,
“Governor Cooper must follow the science. Supplying the globe with the false solution of wood biomass pellets adds to our climate crisis at home.”
Representative Garland Pierce hosted the press conference. Frontline community leaders took turns speaking about the forest, climate, and community health effects of the biomass wood pellet industry. They questioned why these toxic, polluting industries are concentrated in Tier 1 communities. As Tier 1 communities, residents of Northampton, Hertford, Sampson, Robeson, and Richmond counties are already overburdened with too many extractive industries.
Belinda Joyner, a Northampton County resident asked,
“My question is where is the concern for the people that are affected by this?”
Rev. Richie Harding, also a Northampton County resident, took it a step further. He called on state leaders who have expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement to act on racial disparities around pollution. Harding questioned,
“If Black lives matter, why is my community the desired location for a facility that would not only shorten my life, but the lives of my children?”
Debra David of Concerned Citizens of Richmond County said,
“Our government is behind this, and they are killing us. These are death notices. It took one knee on a neck to put somebody’s breath out, and it doesn’t take nothing but the whole world to say let’s stop this because our breath is going to be lost due to pollution – but slowly.”
Residents of Robeson County decried state support for the wood pellet industry and spoke of the increased flood risk from the loss of their natural forests. Their county made national headlines due to flooding from Hurricane Florence in 2018. Jeff Currie, the Lumber Riverkeeper, said,
“Our bottomland forests and swamps absorb water that controls flooding, clean the surface waters to help us control our pollution, and recharge our groundwater supplies for clean drinking. So where’s Cooper? He seems to favor cutting down our trees to create pellets that folks overseas can burn to keep their lights on.”
Reverend Mac Legerton of the Robeson County Center for Cooperative Development followed that up by pointing out the toxic impacts of the industry. He said,
“In public discourse about this issue in North Carolina what is most missed is the toxic releases from this industry that lead to diseases like respiratory problems, heart attacks and cancer. Why are these wood pellet mills in Tier 1 communities that are already overburdened with pollution? The social and environmental damage far outweighs the economic benefits.”
The coalition called on Governor Cooper to:
- Champion and prioritize forest protection and environmental justice policies.
- Direct the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ) to complete a comprehensive study into the forest, climate, and community impacts of the existing wood pellet industry in NC.
- Direct the NC DEQ to accurately and transparently account for and reduce emissions from the forestry sector.
- Direct the NC DEQ to consider cumulative and disproportionate impacts in the permitting process.
Sarah Muskin of UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health said,
“We must push for DEQ and North Carolina legislators to reevaluate the mechanisms through which they make decisions, and restructure the process to center the needs and health of impacted communities over the demands of polluting industries.”
Following the press conference, the groups joined concerned citizens from all over the state for a peaceful demonstration. Demonstrators held signs reading “Where is Cooper on deforestation?” and “We are tired of being tired” and sang “Where is Cooper? Where’s his Voice?” to the tune of Frere Jaques. Demonstrators then marched to the Governor’s office, Department of Environmental Quality, and NC Justice Department to deliver a petition that thousands of North Carolinians signed.
Donna Chavis of Friends of the Earth said,
“We’re here today to call on Governor Cooper to preserve our greatest natural resource, our forests. If we are to believe the sentiments of his clean energy plan, there needs to be action.”