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Embattled Enviva Moves To Protect NC Forests

Dave DeWitt

Enviva, the embattled wood-pellet manufacturer, has announced a $5 million conservation program designed to save some of North Carolina’s environmentally sensitive forests.

Enviva has been under fire from critics for using whole hardwood trees to make the majority of the wood pellets it produces, instead of wood waste. At its two plants in North Carolina, more than 85 percent of the wood comes from hardwood trees.

Enviva says the trees are not suitable “saw logs” and can not be used for furniture or lumber.

The company exports most of the pellets to Europe, where they are burned as part of a subsidized renewable energy effort in former coal plants.

“The forests of North Carolina are extremely important to Enviva’s success and we are taking these steps so we can benefit the families and communities we serve and protect the forest,” says Enviva spokesperson Kent Jenkins. “Our goal has been to leave things better than we found them, and this program will take a big step in that direction.”

The Enviva Forest Conservation Fund will award $5 million in matching grants to conservation organizations over the next ten years. The effort will focus on four specific areas of bottomland forests in 35 counties in North Carolina and Virginia.

Environmental advocates say the effort is not enough.

“After opening three mills in North Carolina and Virginia claiming it would produce wood pellets from sawdust and waste products, Enviva now acknowledges it will focus its pellet sourcing on cutting standing forests,” says Derb Carter, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It fails to put off limits to pellet sourcing some of our most ecologically sensitive and valuable forests including oak and ash swamps, black gum swamps, non-riverine hardwood swamps and longleaf pine forests.”

Enviva also plans to roll out a “track and trace” system that will use GPS to determine where it sources its wood. The system will rely on input from foresters and wood providers and will be implemented sometime next year.

Company officials say this will ensure that Enviva is not taking wood from the four protected bottomland forests.

“We can not solve every problem facing the forests of eastern North Carolina, but we want to make sure we are doing all we can to protect sensitive environmental areas,” Jenkins says.

The conservation and stewardship programs do not address a key point many environmental scientists bring up, that burning wood produces more carbon than burning coal, to get the same amount of electricity.

“Enviva paying a small penance for continued destruction of our southern hardwood forests does nothing to address the fact that burning wood pellets in Europe from these forests will result in four times the carbon emissions that would occur from continuing to burn coal over the next century,” says Carter.

Enviva is building several new wood-pellet plants across the southeast and will open a deepwater shipping facility in Wilmington next year.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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