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Controversy Simmers Over NC Wood Pellet Plant

An Enviva wood pellet plant in Northampton, N.C.
Courtesy of Enviva
An Enviva wood pellet plant in Northampton, N.C.

A biomass fuel plant that processes tree scraps into wood pellets has some North Carolinians concerned about its potential environmental and health impacts.Maryland-based Enviva will soon open its fourth wood pellet plant in the southern part of the state. The new plant will be just outside the small town of Dobbins Heights, where roughly 85 percent of residents are African American and the median household income is $21,000.


Longtime Dobbins Heights resident Debra David is afraid the plant will add “hundreds of thousands of tons of pollutants each year” to the air around her town. On a recent afternoon, she stood on the side of Highway 177 at the site of what will soon become the Enviva plant.

“I live right down the road. Everything around here is damaging to the community for its pollution,” David said. “We already got four [industrial] plants within a four mile radius that’s putting out pollution.”

The new Enviva plant will take a mixture of hard and softwood trees from the surrounding forests and process them into wood pellets that are burned as an alternative to coal. The United Kingdom is the main purchaser of the pellets as a means to transition itself entirely off coal by the year 2025. But a growing number of European and Asian countries are also switching from burning coal to wood fibre.  

sample wood pellets
Credit Courtesy of Enviva
Sample Enviva wood pellets.

Most of the UK’s wood pellet supply comes from the southern United States, including North Carolina.

David and other Dobbins Heights residents fear their community will bear the brunt of the environmental impacts and see little of the economic benefit.

She recently joined a group called Concerned Citizens of Richmond County, which has aligned itself with the environmental advocacy group Dogwood Alliance. The two groups hosted a forum at the Dobbins Heights Community Center on a recent evening to offer residents an opportunity to express their concerns about the plant.  

Some residents welcomed the plant and the jobs it would create.

“We need jobs. If we don’t have jobs we’re going to have robberies. Welcome Enviva,” said lifetime Dobbins Heights resident Edward Tender.

Others worried about the health impacts.  

“I have family members that have asthma. I have family members who have cancer. I don’t know what’s going to happen when the plant is open. I’m here because I want to know more about it,” said lifetime Dobbins Heights resident Catherine York.

Dobbins Heights residents at a community forum to discuss the wood pellet plant
Credit James Morrison / For WUNC
Dobbins Heights residents attended a community forum recently to express their concerns about the Enviva plant coming to town. Others welcomed the plant and the jobs it would create.

Richmond County is one of the least healthy in North Carolina, with a higher rate of chronic respiratory disease and asthma than the state as a whole, according to data compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin.

Now, Concerned Citizens of Richmond County, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, are suing the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, claiming the agency didn’t provide proper public notice before issuing air quality permits for the Enviva plant.

The initial public notice had an incomplete address and the following notice had the wrong zip code.

But Richmond County commissioners, who have been working for years to bring the plant to the area, argue it’s been discussed publicly and regularly since it was first proposed in September 2013.

Richmond County Commissioner Ben Moss called the lawsuit “a last ditch effort” by outside environmental groups.

“At the end of the day, 99 percent of the county wants Enviva here," Moss said. "But now, after all of these years we have a coalition come in, getting people riled up about health concerns - none of them they can prove- and they’re trying to make it a race issue, which it is totally not a race issue.”  

the site of a future Enviva plant in Dobbins Heights.
Credit James Morrison / For WUNC
Construction is underway at the site of a future Enviva plant in Dobbins Heights. It’s expected to be finished by the end of 2018.

The commissioners said the site was chosen because it’s in an industrial area close to a highway, a rail line, a port and a sizeable labor pool.

Enviva promises to create 80 jobs that will pay nearly $40,000 a year. Training for the jobs will be based at Richmond Community College, which is less than two miles from Dobbins Heights, and locals will be given hiring priority, company officials say.   

The company estimates the plant will bring around $23 million in economic development to the county through taxes and by contracting with local tree growers and transportation companies.

Enviva has also demonstrated its ability to meet air quality compliance standards at its North Carolina plants in Ahoskie, Roanoke Rapids and Faison, according to DEQ measurements of harmful, airborne particulate matter, known as PM 2.5.

“The levels reported by the state at our facilities show that we are not contributing to any increase and those air levels are in compliance,” said Rob McCulloch, stakeholder engagement manager for Enviva.

But health advocates argue that compliance doesn’t mean healthy.  

In fact, Richmond County’s respiratory health problems could be linked to poor air quality, even if it’s within state and EPA guidelines, according to Lawrence Raymond, a physician and a former state environmental management commissioner. He’s currently chair of the Medical Advocates for Healthy Air.

“Recent research publications appear to show that there is no safe threshold for what we call PM 2.5 -that is fine particulate matter- in the breathing air,” he said.

Raymond highlighted a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine that shows African Americans have the highest rate of death associated with exposure to fine particulate matter.

He said people in Dobbins Heights may be in the middle of a Faustian bargain, having to choose between health and economic prosperity.

The Concerned Citizens lawsuit is expected to go to court in late November.

Construction has begun at the Enviva plant. It’s expected to be finished by the end of 2018.


James Morrison is a national award-winning broadcast reporter with more than seven years experience working in radio and podcasts. His work has been featured on NPR, Marketplace, Here & Now and multiple other radio outlets and podcasts. His reporting focuses on environmental and health issues, with a focus on the opioid epidemic and sustainable food systems. He was recognized with a national award for a story he reported for NPR on locally-sourced oyster farming. He also received a national award for his daily news coverage of firefighters killed in the line of duty. A podcast he produced about the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War was accepted into the Hearsay International Audio Arts Festival.
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