The Amite biomass wood pellet plant in Gloster, Mississippi that UK-based Drax owns was recently fined $2.5 million dollars for breaking environmental rules. After learning of the fine that Drax received for dumping more than three times their allotment of air pollutants and particulate matter, I had to go to Mississippi to see for myself the impact those violations were having on the ground.
Upon arriving in Gloster, Mississippi, I saw the same story that was so familiar with other under-resourced and preyed on communities.
It was a very small town that was evidently economically depressed while facing many other challenges. Main Street didn’t have many cars or open stores. Because of COVID there weren’t many people out. With no major stores or retailers in sight, I stopped at unpaved gas stations and storage buildings that took the place of restaurants to speak with the people of the community. I met Ms. Janie who lived in low income elder housing who pointed me in the direction of what was known as the “projects”.
I drove closer to the plant and the Blackmon Hole community, a neighborhood of mobile aluminum-siding homes over about an acre and a half. The road was gravel with very little grass covering the small yard spaces. The area was very compact with no designated area for children. I was truly disheartened to witness two young children playing in the shadow of the Amite Mill in what was supposed to be their yard. Adam Lynch of The Lighthouse: Black Girl Projects describes, “[The] community and the plant are so close together I can’t tell which one is sitting in the other’s backyard.”
What was even more horrific was the fact that there was a sign that acknowledged “Children Playing”. The only thing that separated these children from the mill was a chain link fence that was less than a hundred yards from them and their home. As I watched them play, I couldn’t help but feel anxiety because at that fence, I could see enormous wood chip piles and equipment. There was nothing to keep these kids out of harm’s way. Not only that, but whenever the wind blows, those children, their families, and their neighbors are exposed to harmful particulate matter that can result in respiratory issues.
I spoke with some of the adults in this Mississippi neighborhood, but only briefly because the air was so thick that I felt as if I was suffocating.
My eyes and nose were burning as I attempted to have conversations with the residents. Many only knew that the plant existed and said “it just showed up.” One resident applied for a position with Drax directly but was denied. He applied through a temp agency and was able to work there only via contract, so I question how many jobs Drax created for the local community. Not many people I spoke with knew about the health impacts that this plant could cause them or their families. Many were even unaware of the $2.5 million fine on the Amite Mill. These residents were concerned about their health and livelihood, though.
When I spoke to Ms. Janie about the plant, she wanted to know more. She, like so many others, didn’t know about the harmful health effects of having a wood pellet plant in her neighborhood because no one had informed the community of the health risks. As soon as I shared the negative impacts of the wood pellet plant and the information about the fine, she was ready to spring into action. She felt people needed to know what was going on because they live there, and they can’t afford to just up and move. Of the $2.5 million fine, she said her community “could use that money to do something to make it better”, but she knew they would never see a dime because “these folks just do whatever they want to do.” Sadly, she’s right. Even still, Ms. Janie supported me by spreading the word and making sure everyone in her community knew about it. She galvanized people to learn what they can do to advocate for the best solutions for their own community.
The wood pellet industry is creating a strong presence all over the Southeast with a focus on Gulf states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana because land is cheap and ports are close.
These plants are preying on communities for their resources and giving false hope at the expense of our trees, our air, and our lives.
The Southeastern region has become a sacrifice zone. As we battle for climate justice, we must understand there’s a war fighting environmental racism that we need to face. Please join us, uniting as one South to deal with our regional climate crisis by opposing the wood pellet industry and taking action.