Guest Post by Robby Phillips
In June, South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) held a routine public hearing about a proposed permit for a wood pellet facility that would grind wood into pellets in a process that emits dangerous pollution and then ship those pellets overseas to be burned for biomass fuel. There was nothing routine, though, about the powerful story that unfolded. Over a dozen members of the Effingham, SC community, near where the facility is slated to be built, pleaded with DHEC to deny the permit. One woman spoke of losing her daughter to pollution-fueled respiratory illness. Another person spoke of his family’s generational ties to the area and how each subsequent generation has endured new forms of exploitation and environmental degradation. Chief Parr of the Pee Dee Indian Tribe remarked that his people have never relented in the fight to protect their forests and their land, but moneyed interests seem to always win.
The hearing told a story of the fight for environmental justice and of a larger fight for this South Carolina community to have their voices heard.
Effingham, South Carolina’s population is made up of a high proportion of people of color who live below the poverty line and have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
This is true of many communities throughout the South where environmentally destructive wood pellet facilities are sited. These communities have rallied time and time again against these projects and fought to protect their land, water, and health, but as Chief Parr alluded to, those in power are often deferential to supposed economic interests more than those of health and environment, despite all three issues being deeply interlinked.
The permit in question would allow Effingham Pellets LLC to build a new wood pellet production plant. They would use shavings from a timber mill about a mile away from the proposed site to produce upwards of 43,000 metric tons of wood pellets each year, mostly to be shipped internationally for burning as an electricity and heat source. This is only one of many such facilities that have been proposed and built throughout the Southeast which Dogwood has fought against.
Industry beneficiaries, including one who read a carefully worded statement in favor of the permit at the hearing, claim that using biomass fuel sources like wood pellets will help reduce emissions by replacing fossil fuels, while also benefiting the economy. Climate science is often misconstrued or selectively used to support this false argument. The facility proposed in Effingham would produce carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to over 18,000 additional cars on the road each year, when accounting for the production and eventual burning of these pellets. Further, the pellets are not addressing an energy need in the US or even economically benefiting more than a handful of people.
Most of the product will be exported, and the facility will only create 10 jobs at most for the surrounding South Carolina community.
This is not a worthwhile tradeoff for polluted air and worsening the climate crisis.
In addition to the harm that facilities like these inflict upon surrounding communities, they also squander the little time we have to divert the worst of the climate crisis. I’m 20 years old, and my youth has been defined by wildfires, worsening hurricanes, and dire warnings about our need to cut global emissions in half by 2030. Already this summer, we’ve seen record high temperatures in the Pacific Northwest, flooding in the Midwest and South, and literal fires in the ocean as pipelines leak. It is climate denialism to forge ahead on new facilities that produce carbon-intensive fuel. Our futures are at stake—youth like myself and frontline communities like those in Effingham are making our call loud and clear:
We deserve to have a healthy future with truly clean energy.
All of our economies, health, and futures rely on rapidly creating a world powered by clean, renewable energy in which we protect our air and water. Our public institutions and officials have an obligation to make this transition their utmost priority. It’s certainly true for an agency whose very purpose is protecting our health and environment like DHEC.
DHEC opened the public hearing by explaining what PM, VOC, and other pollutant levels are considered acceptable; the air permit for the facility claims that they will release pollutants below this threshold of acceptability. What if, instead, we did not accept any amount of pollution being discharged into our communities against the will of the people? What if we reject industries that exacerbate and even cause respiratory illnesses and generally lead to a decline in quality of life? To truly build a just world and prioritize our health and environment, we must utilize the tools and technology we have to listen to the concerns and needs of our most vulnerable. It’s imperative that we create clean and green energy for all. Our futures depend on it.
Robby Phillips is a rising Junior at Duke University, where he is majoring in Public Policy and minoring in Environmental Science & Policy and History. He is passionate about organizing in politics and for environmental justice. He loves being outdoors, whether it be swimming, hiking, or just hanging out on a nice day with friends or family.