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, [email protected] 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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Oppose “Transparency & Honesty in Energy Regulations Act”

Oppose “Transparency & Honesty in Energy Regulations Act”

Action Alert: Oppose the Deceptively Named “Transparency and Honesty in Energy Regulations Act”

At the end of June, H.R. 3117, also known as “Transparency and Honesty in Energy Regulations Act of 2017” was introduced. The bill is due for markup on Thursday in the Natural Resources Committee in the House.

Here’s what H.R. 3117 does:

  • Legislates that agencies ignore or drastically undervalue the cost of climate change by creating a wide-ranging restriction on the appropriate use of the social cost of carbon (and analogous estimates for methane and nitrous oxide). This includes any existing or future estimates.
  • Ties the hands of future decision makers in responding to changing circumstances on what is a very technical process, informed by up-to-date analysis.
  • Results in government decision-making that fails to adequately account for the costly damages of climate change.

The name of H.R. 3117 is completely misleading. It is neither transparent nor honest. As has become the normal pattern of practice, efforts to cater to the fossil fuel industry are masquerading as sound public policy. Put simply, the bill aims to prohibit the Secretary of Energy, Administrator of the EPA and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality from considering the social costs of carbon, methane and nitrous oxide in taking any action and for other purposes.

Why Does This Matter?

Carbon, methane and nitrous oxide are all greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. As was the case when the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement and the EPA proposed to rescind the Clean Power Plan in October of this year, H.R. 3117 shows we are moving backwards on policies and common sense efforts to combat climate change.

Climate change is not merely a threat to our environment and climate. It is a threat to human beings’ way of life in that it loads the dice for extreme weather events, creates droughts and flooding, leads to rising temperatures and intensifying smog. It is absurd and disastrous to suggest that there is not a social cost associated with these dangerous greenhouse gases.

What You Can Do

H.R. 3117 cannot become law. Our Congress cannot continue down the path of the executive branch of turning their backs on current and future generations when it comes to climate change. Let Congress know that H.R. 3117 flies in the face of the public interest and the environment that sustains us.

Action Alert

Climate change is real. Don’t let Congress try to muddy the water by barring federal agencies from considering of the costs of greenhouse gas pollution. Write your representatives in Congress to stop H.R. 3117 before it picks up momentum!

Scott Pruitt’s Shameful Ploy to Undo the Clean Power Plan

Scott Pruitt’s Shameful Ploy to Undo the Clean Power Plan

On Monday, October 9, 2017, the EPA proposed to repeal the Clean Power Plan. Once it is published in the Federal Register tomorrow there will be a 60 day public comment period. [Update: read Pruitt’s delusional press release here.] As we have before for the proposed and final rule, Gasp will be commenting. It is not only regrettable, but also disgraceful that we are commenting again, this time against repealing one of the most critical plans to address and combat climate change.

Clearly the motto of this new administration is to repeal, repeal, repeal with no thought of replacing. Where Scott Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times prior to being in charge of the EPA, I cannot say I’m shocked at this announcement. But this is conscience-shocking.

Where September of this year was the most active month on record for Atlantic hurricanes and the 10 hottest years recorded have all occurred since 1998, climate change isn’t a distant threat, it’s here. The time to act has long passed and we certainly do not have time to roll back existing regulations.

EPA estimates the Clean Power Plan will prevent up to 3,600 premature deaths and 90,000 childhood asthma attacks every year once it is fully implemented.

The message today? Meh, your health, your children’s health, they don’t matter. This administration would rather coyly and ignorantly pretend they’re unsure whether carbon is a pollutant. Such an absurd position is indefensible, especially when it’s well-known who has been buttering Scott Pruitt’s bread for a very long time.

This is a slap in the face to current and future generations. If you agree, please sign our petition for climate action!

TAKE ACTION

Trump Expected to Back Out of Paris Climate Agreement

Trump Expected to Back Out of Paris Climate Agreement

Multiple news outlets are reporting that President Trump will announce this week his intentions to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate change agreement. The move is likely to upset U.S. allies across the globe, especially considering that the accords were agreed to by 197 nations.

This is further evidence that the onus is on us to fight climate change. Here in Alabama, some of our vulnerabilities include extreme heat, increased ozone pollution, drought, wildfire, or coastal flooding. And yet our state government has not taken any action whatsoever to assessing climate change impacts.

Alabama has no plan in place for future climate risks, nor have we implemented any adaptation strategies. State funding and resilience policies are virtually non-existent. Alabama is woefully unprepared to deal with the health and environmental impacts of climate change.

Public opinion is on our side. A poll released last month by Yale University and George Mason University found that 69 percent of Americans support staying in the climate agreement. That level of support is inconceivable in these polarized times.

The support is bipartisan, too. Majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans think the U.S. should remain a part of the accords. Even a plurality of Trump’s supporters (47 percent) support staying in.

Regardless of the overwhelming bipartisan support for participating in the Paris climate change agreement, we cannot lose sight of what matters most: the science.

 

Inaction is not a viable action, nor is going it alone. We have to work collaboratively with other nations to solve the intractable problem of our changing climate and start implementing solutions now. The health of our planet and, most importantly, future generations is at stake.

SPEAK UP

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.

Renew Alabama Conference to Shine a Light on Climate Change

Renew Alabama Conference to Shine a Light on Climate Change

Countering a national agenda which seeks to divide us will require us to discover our shared values. Renew Alabama is a new coalition united under a common banner of social, environmental, and climate justice. Grounded in our shared humanity, experiences and faith, we are calling on community leaders and elected officials throughout Alabama to shift the paradigm.

On May 6, 2017, partner organizations will come together to host the inaugural Renew Alabama Conference. The free, full-day workshop will take place at The Edge of Chaos on the University of Alabama Birmingham campus. Participants will explore the link between social and environmental justice, how climate change will exacerbate many of these historic wrongs, and what we can do to build a more just and sustainable future.

Organizers hope the conference will ignite a conversation about how to remove barriers to clean energy, to invest in sustainable infrastructure, to increase opportunities for green jobs, and to protect public health and our environment.

Whether we seek to ignore it or not, there’s no debate that climate change will adversely impact Alabama. From saltwater intrusion of our aquifers, to increasingly powerful hurricanes, we are already witnessing many of these impacts. At the same time, addressing climate change has the potential to create thousands of new jobs and ensure a more just and sustainable Alabama for us all.

Conference hosts include the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, Alabama Environmental Council, Alabama Rivers Alliance, Center for Earth Ethics, Climate Speakers Network, Eagle Solar & Light, Energy Alabama, Gasp, Sierra Club Alabama Chapter, USGBC Alabama, UAB Sustainability, and Village Creek Human and Environmental Justice Society. This is an opportunity to right the many wrongs done to our communities and our earth, and to bring about a revitalization to historically disadvantaged communities.

Participants are asked to RSVP at renewalabama.com by May 2. For more information, contact Michael Hansen at 205-701-4270 or [email protected]

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