Report Finds Rapidly Growing “Green” Energy Industry Releases Dangerous Air Pollution in AL

Report Finds Rapidly Growing “Green” Energy Industry Releases Dangerous Air Pollution in AL

Report Finds Rapidly Growing “Green” Energy Industry Releases Dangerous Air Pollution in Alabama

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Half of Wood Pellet Plants in U.S. Violate Pollution Limits or Fail to Install Required Emissions Control Equipment

Media Contact: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, tpelton@environmentalintegrity.org or (202) 888-2703

Washington, D.C. (April 26, 2018) — A booming new industry that cuts down forests in the U.S. South to generate electricity in Europe, under the false pretense that burning wood pellets is carbon neutral, releases vast amounts of dangerous and illegal air pollution, including in Alabama, according to a new report by the Environmental Integrity Project. Alabama has three large wood pellet plants today, but that number is expected to double.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on Monday (April 23) announced a new Trump Administration policy to encourage the “forest biomass” energy industry by claiming that the burning of wood pellets is carbon neutral.

“Cutting down forests to burn to generate electricity is not in any way ‘green’ or carbon neutral – and in fact, creates a large amount of air pollution,” said Patrick Anderson, co-author of the EIP report, titled, “Dirty Deception.” “Even if the trees are replanted, not all survive – and those that do will take decades or centuries to grow to the same size, and therefore the same carbon dioxide absorbing potential of the trees that were eliminated.”

The report’s authors examined federal and state records for 21 wood pellet plants from Virginia to Texas and concluded that one third of them (7 out of 21) violated their permits in 2017 by releasing illegal amounts of air pollution, while another four had faulty permits issued by states that failed to require pollution control equipment required by the federal Clean Air Act.

Overall, more than half of the wood pellet plants (11 out of 21) either failed to keep emissions below legal limits or failed to install required pollution controls, according to the report.

The federal budget bill signed by President Trump on March 23 contains a provision that encourages more burning of wood pellets like this for electricity, with an inaccurate claim that the “biomass” industry is good for the climate.

“With the Trump Administration and Congress now encouraging this crazy notion that clearcutting forests is helpful to the environment, it’s important that we have an accurate accounting of just how much air pollution these wood pellet plants actually produce,” said Anderson, an attorney with Powell Environmental Law, which wrote the report for EIP. “The records show that the biomass industry releases not only millions of tons of greenhouse gases, but also tons of soot particles that can trigger asthma and heart attacks, as well as carcinogens and smog-forming pollutants.”

The wood pellet industry has grown almost 10-fold in the U.S. since 2009. It is being driven by a loophole in the European Union’s carbon accounting system that is based on the mistaken notion that burning wood is carbon neutral and therefore good for the climate, because replanted trees absorb carbon dioxide. In fact, replanted trees take many decades to grow enough to absorb as much carbon dioxide as the trees cut down for the industry, and not all the saplings survive.

In the midst of the industry’s fast growth, relatively little attention has been paid to the high levels of air pollution generated by wood pellet manufacturing plants, emissions that can trigger a wide array of health and environmental problems.

In Alabama, there are three wood pellet plants, the largest of which are Mohegan Renewable Energy (formerly Lee Energy Solutions) near Birmingham, and Zilkha Biomass, near Selma. Three additional new mills are proposed in the state. According to federal and state records, the three existing plants together annually release 499 tons of soot (fine particle pollution that triggers asthma and heart attacks), 999 tons of volatile organic compounds (which contribute to smog), 584 tons of nitrogen oxide air pollution (which feed low-oxygen “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico), and 649,836 tons of carbon dioxide (which contributes to global warming.) These pollution totals are expected to roughly double if the three new plants are built, as planned.

“While the wood biomass industry masquerades as ‘renewable energy,’ these plants are releasing dirty pollution into the air we breathe,” said Michael Hansen, Executive Director of a Birmingham-based nonprofit called Gasp that is devoted to fighting for clean air. “Air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk factor for premature death and disease in the world — and those hurt the most are kids, seniors, pregnant women, and people suffering from chronic diseases.”

Across the U.S., the Environmental Integrity Project investigation found that 21 U.S. wood pellet mills currently exporting to Europe emit a total of 16,000 tons of health-threatening air pollutants per year, including more than 2,500 tons of particulate matter (soot), 3,200 tons of nitrogen oxides, 2,100 tons of carbon monoxide, and 7,000 tons of volatile organic compounds. These plants also emit 3.1 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, according to the study.

Other key findings of the report:

  • Of the 15 largest operating wood pellet facilities, at least eight have had fires or explosions since 2014, including at factories in North Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, and Texas that released large amounts of air pollution or injured employees.
  • A factory northeast of Houston owned by German Pellets has emitted nearly ten times its permitted limits of volatile organic compound pollution since it began operation in 2013, releasing 580 tons per year. Rather than require the facility to comply with legal limits, Texas officials are proposing to simply raise the limits to let the facility continue to emit dangerous levels of pollution.
  • At the Enviva Biomass wood pellet plant in Southampton County, Virginia, plant operators actually removed the pollution control equipment to evade upgrade requirements and switched from processing softwood to hardwood, which results in more carbon dioxide pollution and other harmful environmental impacts.

“It’s time for states to pump the brakes on an industry that has been deceiving investors, decision-makers, and communities from day one — whether it’s misleading the public about their wood sourcing, evading community input in the permitting process, or skirting clean air quality standards,” said Emily Zucchino of the Dogwood Alliance, a nonprofit that works to protect Southern forests and communities from destructive industrial logging. “State governors and agencies need to do right by communities, instead of allowing companies like Enviva to continue to grow unchecked which harms public health, forests and the climate.”

One of the most troubling trends in the wood pellet industry discussed in the report is that facilities that should face the most rigorous air permitting standards are actually the least controlled and dirtiest.

Under a Clean Air Act program called “new source review,” new or modified major sources of air pollution are required to reduce emissions to the level achievable by using the best available control technology.

Contrary to that legal requirement, states allow construction of the country’s largest wood pellet manufacturing plants without controls, or with inadequate controls, for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), an air pollutant that causes smog and respiratory problems.

This is despite the fact that extremely effective VOC controls capable of reducing emissions by 90 to 95 percent are in widespread use at similar wood pellet manufacturing plants. For instance, in North Carolina, wood dryers at two recently permitted wood pellet factories owned by Enviva Biomass emit nearly six times more VOCs and 50 to 60 times more hazardous air pollutants than comparable facilities with appropriate pollution control systems.

“This industry is creating a public health hazard that can easily be avoided – because we already have the technology available to filter and capture this air pollution,” said Keri N. Powell, co-author of the EIP report and Director of Powell Environmental Law. “The solution is for states to enforce the law and require wood pellet plants to install the best available technology.”

In other instances, states allow facilities to emit air pollution well beyond legal limits for years at a time, according to the “Dirty Deception” report. In Mississippi, Florida, and North Carolina, state permitting authorities continue to allow wood pellet manufacturing plants to emit well above a 250 ton per year threshold before facilities are required to install air pollution controls.

For example, the Drax wood pellet plant in Amite County, Mississippi, near McComb, emits more than 900 tons per year of VOCs – more than three times the amount that normally triggers a requirement for the installation of best available pollution control equipment.

The report makes several recommendations for addressing the problem, including:

  1. Requiring states to reexamine existing air permits for wood pellet plants in light of new testing that shows much higher emissions of volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants.
  2. Require that all major sources of air pollution to install the best available control technology.
  3. Require annual emissions testing for volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants from all of the major emission points at pellet mills.
  4. Reduce the risk of fires and explosions by requiring wood pellet facilities to comply with their duty under the federal Clean Air Act to design and maintain safe facilities.

For a copy of the report, visit www.environmentalintegrity.org

QUOTES FROM LOCAL RESIDENTS CONCERNED ABOUT THE INDUSTRY:

Mississippi: “It is past time for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality to step up and protect the public health and safety of Mississippians from this pollution source as required by law,” said Louie Miller, State Director of the Sierra Club’s Mississippi Chapter. “Mississippi should not be known as the ‘cheap date’ for polluting industries.”

Texas: “Residents who live in Woodville, TX, near the pellet factory have grave concerns about the repeated fires at the plant, and they report health problems that went away once it closed,” said Robin Schneider, Executive Director of Texas Campaign for the Environment. “It’s time for environmental officials to take this bull by the horns and treat these issues with the seriousness that they deserve.”

Florida: “The Enviva Mill in Jackson County (near Panama City) has been violating the Clean Air Act for years by emitting hundreds of tons of unlawful and dangerous air pollution,” said Jennifer Rubiello, State Director of Environment Florida. “It’s time for Florida to step up and require Enviva to install legally-required air pollution controls, just as Georgia and Alabama have done for similar facilities. Not only are Enviva Mill’s actions against the law, but in this day and age when we have the technology to keep our air clean, there is no reason not to protect the health of all Floridians.”

Georgia: “Georgians have first-hand experience with the dangers posed by this industry,” said Vicki Weeks, Georgia State Coordinator for the Dogwood Alliance. “Their plants are typically sited in poor rural areas where communities with little access to effective health care are being hard hit by their unchecked air pollution.”

North Carolina: “The non-stop pollution, dust, noise, and truck traffic the Enviva pellet mill brings to Northampton County is a grave injustice to this community,” said Belinda Joyner founder of Concerned Citizens of Northampton County. “They have no respect for the people who live here, and they give nothing back – so we demand action.”

South Carolina: “Entire communities across the South are waking up to the damage these rapacious pellet companies are doing to our environment,” said Alectron Dorfman, chairman of Lakelands Citizens for Clean Air. “In the Lakelands area of Greenwood and Laurens Counties, the dramatic increase in production and pollution at the Enviva plant in Columbo is cause for great concern among our citizens for the quality of our air and the future of our forests.”

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 15-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, based in Washington D.C., dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.

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Air Monitor Construction Status Update

Air Monitor Construction Status Update

At Gasp my project is to build an air monitor meaning this device needs to measure temperature, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon monoxide, ambient particulate, and humidity levels.

Purpose: Currently, there is a small of amount of data on the particulate matter. There only 7 in Jefferson County that measure fine particulate matter (PM2.5). PM2.5 is an air pollutant and when its levels are high the tiny particles reduce the visibility of the air making the air appear hazy. The higher the PM levels, the worse it is for the lungs so it is important for everyone to know the air quality for their own health and create a safe environment for the next generation.

Future goals: With a successful device, the best way to give back to society is to share our hard work by teaching others how to make their own air monitor. My vision is to create a video with step by step instructions and placing the code on a public platform. A materials kit can be ordered from Gasp and the office would ship the kit to a customer with the link to the instructions and the code. We would like to go to high schools and have a session in class for each student to build his or her own device that they can take home and place it outside.

Current status: We are waiting for the Arduino to ship into the office. The Arduino connects the electronic device to the computer and we use it as a coding software. The Arduino lets us code what we want the machine to do. Our wonderful technical adviser John is working on completing the code. Here’s a picture of all the current parts!

Intern Kenneth Paik: What I’ve Learned So Far

Intern Kenneth Paik: What I’ve Learned So Far

Interning at Gasp has definitely brought a lot of things to my attention regarding health and safety in the city of Birmingham. Birmingham per se contains an immeasurable number of pollutant factors, all of which produces damaging toxins into our air. These factors include industrialized buildings, trains, cars, etc.

The population—you, me, family, friends, babies, grandparents—are ALL affected by the pollution in the air, and a change is vital for the safety of our lives. Because what originates from the minor emission of CO2 and ground level ozone may lead to an asthma attack or lung disease, seen especially in children.

During my internship at Gasp, I have been working on a project to help implement EPA’s Flag Program into local elementary, middle, and high schools of Birmingham and Jefferson County. The objective of this program is to use brightly colored flags to help students become aware of daily air quality conditions. When students know the daily air quality, they can adjust their daily routine to reduce exposure to air pollution.

With the help of Michael, Haley, and Kirsten, I am currently in the position of reaching out to science educators that may be interested with incorporating EPA’s program into their schools. Hopefully by the end of my school semester a majority of schools in the Birmingham and Jefferson County get involved with this essential and foundational program.

AirBeam Saga Part III: Analyzing Pollution Data in Five Local Parks

AirBeam Saga Part III: Analyzing Pollution Data in Five Local Parks

After conducting an air study around three major public high schools, I decided to conduct some testing around Birmingham’s local parks. The five parks tested were Elyton, Lynn, Greenwood, Avondale, and Homewood Park. I tested each park over a period of three days, and I spent around five minutes walking around each park.

Day 1:

On the first day of testing, I noticed how different the parks were from each other. In Elyton and Lynn Park, there were no people around. I was quite happy by this development, because I would not have to explain to any civilians why I was carrying around a weird looking device! Greenwood Park was also empty, except I saw an airplane flying over the park. Due to this observation, I assumed that Greenwood would have a high level of pollution. At Avondale and Homewood Park, there were actually people walking around and playing tennis. I even saw geese near the lake in Avondale, and I was taken away by the beauty of the architecture.

Elyton: Day I

Lynn: Day I

Greenwood: Day I

Avondale: Day I

Avondale: Day I

Homewood: Day I

Day 2:

On the second day of testing, Elyton and Lynn Park were still empty of my fellow human brethren. While at Elyton Park, I did hear a very loud noise. It sounded like an engine or really strong wind. After checking the weather data, the wind was only travelling around 9 miles per hour, so I concluded that there may have been an airplane flying by that was out of my line of vision. I actually saw other people at Greenwood Park, and even a cute little dog enjoying the park’s playground and basketball court. The geese were at it again at Avondale Park, except they were enjoying the scenery under the playground steps. I am so glad that I was able to capture a picture of their relaxed awesomeness. I concluded my journey at Homewood Park, where there were so many people walking around.

Elyton: Day II

Lynn: Day II

Greenwood: Day II

Avondale: Day II

Avondale: Day II

Homewood: Day II

Day 3:

The final day of testing was pretty interesting. I actually saw another human at Elyton Park! He was enjoying a morning stroll, while I walked around the park collecting data. Next, I went to Lynn Park where I discovered that there was another part of the park that included a small playground, so I made sure to collect data near that part of the park. At Greenwood Park I, once again, observed a few people playing basketball. While at Avondale and Homewood, I noticed that there were so many people around. I tried to walk for more than five minutes in both parks, because both parks are at least twice the size of the other three, and I wanted to collect as much data as possible. After returning back to work, I realized that no pollutant particle data was recorded for Avondale, because the AirCasting app apparently crash and froze while I was there collecting data.

Elyton: Day III

Lynn: Day III

Lynn: Day III

Greenwood: Day III

Avondale: Day III

Homewood: Day III

Federal Roundup: Trump’s First #100Days Edition

Federal Roundup: Trump’s First #100Days Edition

The news is a buzz this week with assessing President Trump’s first 100 days in office. NPR did a great Q&A with Cokie Roberts about this Presidential benchmark and its significance, if any. I have been doing my best to keep you all up to speed since day one of the new administration and how actions at the executive and federal level are affecting clean air and health. It has been a very busy first 100 days to track, sadly mostly not in a good way. Since I last blogged a couple of weeks ago, several new developments have cropped up and we have new updates.

NEW DEVELOPMENTS

  • April 27, 2017: S.987 “100 by 50” Bill. This bill is sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and co-sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). This bill would phase out fossil fuels and completely replace them with clean renewable energy by 2050. The bill would put in place a comprehensive plan to ramp up renewable energy and energy efficiency, the electrification of transportation and heating, while putting a halt to the development of fossil fuel infrastructure. It also includes provisions to train workers in the transition to clean energy to encourage the deployment of clean energy in disadvantaged communities.
  • April 27, 2017: D.C. Circuit Court suspends Litigation Over MATS. On April 18, 2017 the EPA, in an email, announced its plans to file a motion to the D.C. Circuit court to ask them to delay oral arguments set for May 18, 2017 in EPA’s defense of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule. In 2015, the D.C. Circuit Court did not throw out the MATS rule and instead instructed EPA to go back and consider costs (most plants subject to MATS have either complied or retired). On April 27, 2017, the D.C. Circuit Court granted EPA’s request to delay oral arguments.
  • April 28, 2017: President Trump signs Executive Order to expand offshore drilling. President Trump signed an Executive Order that calls for a “review of the locations available for offshore oil and gas exploration.” The order directs Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review a five-year plan in which President Obama banned drilling in parts of the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic Oceans.
  • April 28, 2017: D.C. Circuit Court grants EPA’s request to pause litigation over Clean Power Plan. Last month, the White House requested a 60-day hold on litigation surrounding the Clean Power Plan. On April 28, 2017, the D.C. Circuit Court granted that request. This pause allows the parties (EPA, 24 states and cities, environmental and industry groups) to file briefs addressing the future of the rule.

UPDATES ON PREVIOUS ACTIONS

  • Congressional Review Act put into play by U.S. Congress. The CRA allows senators and representatives who disapprove of a regulation to enter a resolution eliminating it. The resolutions require the signature of the president. So far this year, the following rules protecting the environment and human health have been targeted under the CRA:
    • The Department of Interior’s Stream Protection Rule. UPDATE: On February 16, 2017, President Donald Trump signed the repeal of the Stream Protection Rule.
    • Department of the Interior Methane Flaring Rule. The House voted on February 3, 2017 with no action so far from the Senate as of the date of this post. UPDATE: on March 21, 2017, some Republican lawmakers came out against using the CRA to repeal this rule. Specifically, Sen. Lindsey Graham said he believed the rule could be subject to improvement, not just cancellation. “I think we can replace it with a better reg, rather than a CRA.”
    • Drilling and Mining on Public Lands. On January 31, 2017, the House introduced a joint resolution that would repeal the rules that allow the National Park Service to manage private drilling and mining in 40 parks across the country. UPDATE: on March 26, 2017, President Trump issued an Executive Order directing the Department of the Interior to review over 20 years of national monuments under the Antiquities Act. Specifically, President Trump has asked Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, to review 24 national monuments created since 1996 and to recommend ways for Congress to shrink or abolish them. The Order requires the department to make preliminary recommendations within 45 days and affects only those monuments that are not larger than 100,000 acres. Currently monuments are now closed to new oil and gas leasing and no new mining claims can be granted there. If monuments are downsized or abolished, they will no longer be protected from drilling or mining.
    • OMB Proposed Budget Cuts to EPA and NOAA. The proposed budget cuts would reduce EPA’s staff by one fifth in the first year and eliminate dozens of programs. Specifically, EPA’s staff would be slashed from 15,000 to 12,000. The proposed budget would also cut EPA’s grants to states, including air and water programs, by 30 percent and eliminate 38 separate programs in their entirety. Media outlets also discovered a four page budget memo that would slash NOAA’s budget by 17 percent, delivering steep cuts to research funding and satellite programs. Any such cuts would have to be codified through the congressional appropriations process. UPDATE: On April 28, 217 U.S. Congress passed a bill that would extend until May 5, 2017 the deadline for a deal on federal spending through September and head off a feared government shutdown at midnight on Friday, April 28, 2017.
    • Republicans Joint Resolution on Climate Change. A group of 17 Republican members of Congress signed a resolution vowing to seek “economically viable” ways to combat global warming. No update since last post.

Bills, Bills Bills

Bill NumberSponsorDescriptionStatus
HR 998Jason Smith, R-MOEstablishes a commission to identify obsolete and unnecessarily burdensome regulations to be repealed. It also sets goals for the commission to reduce costs by 15 percent and to prioritize major rules that are more than 15 years old and rules that can be eliminated without diminishing effectiveness.No action since the bill passed the House on 3/1/2017.
HR 1009Paul Mitchell, R-MIRequires independent agencies to submit rules to the Office of Management and Budget before they are published—essentially giving the president tight control of the rule-making processNo action since the bill passed the House on 3/1/2017.
HR 1004Tim Walberg, R-MIWould require agencies to publish more detail of forthcoming rules and regulationsNo action since the bill passed the House on 3/2/2017.
HR 637Gary Palmer, R-ALBlocks the EPA’s ability to address climate changeNo actions taken since the bill was introduced. You can read our analysis of the bill here.
HR 861Matt Gaetz, R-FLWould abolish the EPA effective December 31, 2018No actions taken since the bill was introduced.
HR 958Sam Johnson, R-TXWould leave EPA with a budget of less than $1 billion. This bill would eliminate EPA climate change programs and would also close all of the EPA’s regional offices, halt new regulations on ground-level ozone pollution and require the agency to lease unused propertyNo actions taken since the bill was introduced.
H.R. 1430Lamar Smith,

R-TX

The bill works “[t]o prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible.” This bill is an attempt to revise the EPA’s scientific review process that guides their rulemaking.No action since bill passed the House on 3/29/2017
H.R. 4775Pete Olson,This bill aims to update to the national ozone standards, with various provisions that would change the way the Environmental Protection Agency reviews standards for particulate matter, lead and other air pollutants.No action since it was introduced. You can read our blog post from last year when this bill was introduced and failed.
H.R. 1731Hal Rogers,

R-KY

This is a bipartisan bill called the RECLAIM Act that would release $1 billion to create economic development opportunities in coal communities affected by the energy industry’s transition away from dirty fossil fuels.No action since the bill was introduced.

 

We are keeping our ear to the ground on any and all developments that could affect clean air and health in Alabama. Be on the look out for regular updates from us about legislative and executive actions that could threaten your health and environment. We will also always provide ways for you to act on any development, whether it’s positive or negative.

BREAKING NEWS: Alabama Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Gasp

BREAKING NEWS: Alabama Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Gasp

The Alabama Supreme Court today denied a petition from ABC Coke (a division of Drummond Company) and the Jefferson County Board of Health for writ of certiorari in ABC Coke and Jefferson County Board of Health v. Gasp, Inc. In other words, the Alabama Supreme Court has ruled in our favor, just as the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals and Jefferson County Circuit Court did.

They were seeking review of the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals decision affirming the Circuit Court’s decision reversing the Board of Health’s dismissal of our request for hearing on the ABC Coke air pollution permit.

Next, we will go to hearing before the Board of Health and its hearing officer to contest the permit issued by the Department of Health to ABC Coke. This tug-of-war has been going on since the Jefferson County Department of Health reissued the ABC Coke permit in 2014. Our goal is stronger public health protections for residents who live near the facility, which is one of the top sources of toxic air pollution in the Birmingham area.

The Board of Health should never have sided with Drummond and ABC Coke and against public health. Three courts have agreed that they should have granted us a hearing from the start rather than spending years on costly court costs and appeals. The communities who are affected by ABC Coke’s toxic emissions deserve a hearing, and we intend to make certain that happens.

Support our work by becoming a member today! We need your support now more than ever.

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