The Biomass Delusion Comes to Mississippi

Lucedale citizens protest plans for largest wood pellet plant in the world.

Last month, local residents, state environmental justice advocates, faith leaders, and regional conservation organizations, attended a public hearing on a proposed wood pellet mill in Lucedale, Mississippi. During the hearing, most of them asked the state to deny the permit and instead invest in forest protection, an equitable transition for all to 100 percent clean and renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, and to stop opening the door for more destructive industries that want to come into the state.

photo of wood pellet plant
Envia's proposed plant, if built, would have the capacity to process wood from up to 130,000 acres of forest every year. Photo courtesy of Dogwood Alliance.

Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturer, has proposed to build a giant pellet manufacturing facility in Lucedale. If built, the plant would be the largest wood pellet mill in the world, with the capacity to produce 1.4 million tons of wood pellets per year, requiring up to 130,000 acres of forests to be cut down annually — all to be shipped overseas and burned in power stations in Europe and Asia as biomass power.

“There were dozens of people that showed up for the permit hearing, many in support of the promised jobs, despite the fact that this new mill will bring air pollution, truck traffic and noise and destructive impacts to their forests,” said Rachel Weber of Dogwood Alliance, said of the May 14 meeting. “Enviva came to town promising the world to state and local governments, churches and organizations. But if extractive industry and industrial logging were a way to pull communities out of poverty and to improve our quality of life, the Southeast would have some of the wealthiest communities in the world.”

Enviva brings with it a track record of air quality violations, controversy, and community opposition. Last year, a report by the Environmental Integrity Project documented that more than half of all wood pellet facilities in the South failed to keep emissions below legal limits or to install proper pollution controls. Of all the companies they examined, Enviva has been the worst offender. The Maryland-based company is currently being taken to court over air quality issues in North Carolina.

“The operation of the Enviva Lucedale facility will cause or contribute to exceedances of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) and that the plant will emit air toxics at levels that present unacceptable threats to human health,” said Patrick Anderson of Environmental Integrity Project. “As a result, the proposed facility does not meet requirements for the issuance of an air construction permit under the Clean Air Act and Mississippi regulations.”

Following the public hearing, it’s clear that Mississippi is just at the beginning of a long battle to protect forests, communities, and climate.

Reverend Malcolm, of the People’s Justice Council, decried Enviva as “a bad neighbor. Not good for the community or the planet.” Enviva has a troubling history in communities where it has set up shop, including operating with flawed permits, air quality violations, and denial of communities having meaningful public input during the permitting processes. Their 24/7 operations mean constant noise and dust for the surrounding community, and increased truck traffic has affected local roads.

The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality has a responsibility to ensure that Enviva complies with clean air and clean water standards. Even more, state policymakers have a responsibility to the people of Mississippi that their taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. If the proposed plant is approved, Enviva would receive up to $17 million in taxpayer-funded incentives, grants, and property tax breaks.

Biomass is living on borrowed time and has shaky credentials. It's not truly renewable, it's not carbon-neutral and its diminishing government subsidies can't be justified forever. These negative impacts have effects on European and Asian government’s willingness to subsidize biomass plants with public money. And for investors, the question is not if the bubble will burst, but when..

For local governments the question is who will pay the most when forests are degraded, all of our precious natural resources are exported, and massive facilities across the ocean no longer accept biomass?

Katherine Egland of the NAACP summarized the situation aptly, “While we in opposition to this facility are being labelled ‘outsiders,’ local residents have no problem with a Maryland-based corporation shipping valuable natural resources halfway around the world or giving millions of dollars in tax incentives to the Maryland-based company.”

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