After living in Dobbins Heights, a town north of Hamlet, for 61 years, Debra David sees the construction of a new facility by Enviva – a wood pellet manufacturer – as another problem for an area that has been plagued by industry-related health struggles for decades.
“It’s already infested,” David said. “And now, they’ll be clearing out trees and opening up more room for all that smoke to come to Dobbins Heights.”
The new Enviva facility is part of a rapidly growing wood pellet industry in the Southeastern United States. Research has shown that these facilities are consistently built in disadvantaged communities of color. Dobbins Heights had a median income of $21,220 in 2015 and is roughly 85 percent African American.
With experts expressing concerns about the plants’ environmental and health impacts, members of these communities feel neglected by their local government and unfairly burdened with another industrial threat to their communities’ future.
‘It comes down to representation’
A recent study by Tufts University found a trend of Enviva facilities being built near high-poverty, high-minority communities in the Southeast. The study calls them “environmental justice communities,” or counties with a non-white population over 25 percent and average poverty level above the state’s median.
It found that all wood pellet production facilities in North and South Carolina are located exclusively in environmental justice communities like Dobbins Heights, which is a part of Richmond County.
According to the study, this creates and perpetuates circumstances where economically depressed communities bear the burden of energy development projects, while powerful outside entities benefit from cheap labor and capital costs.
Emily Zucchino with Dogwood Alliance has worked with the Concerned Citizens of Richmond County, a local group that David is a member of, to protest the Enviva facility’s construction. She said the findings in the Tufts study are a result of racial inequalities in local governments.
“It comes down to representation,” Zucchino said. “We have a place like Richmond County where county commissioners are selected at large, and there isn’t a single person of color or a woman on the county commission.”
Dobbins Heights is surrounded by a power plant, a railroad facility, a natural gas facility, a food production plant and a chemical plant. Out of 100 N.C. counties, Richmond County – where the community is located – ranked 90th in health outcomes, 92nd in premature death rate and 94th in clinical care quality in 2016.
Tavares Bostic, another member of the Concerned Citizens, said people in Dobbins Heights face decisions like choosing not to buy food to afford gas for their cars, struggles their representatives have never grappled with.
He said these struggles make it hard to rally the community against projects like Enviva’s because of the potential job creation the new industry brings with it.
“For people here who need jobs, who need money, they’ll say, ‘Well, I’m 55 and my kid is in high school, so I will take the negative health impacts if it means I can leave money for my young people,’” Bostic said.
Kim Cesafsky, manager of sustainability at Enviva, said safety for workers and community members is the number one priority of the company.
“Not only are we totally in compliance or more than in compliance with laws, but in addition to that, we do our own continuous monitoring of air quality at our facilities on a voluntary basis,” Cesafsky said.
Enviva, the world's largest producer of wood pellets, uses trees from surrounding forests to produce the pellets at its facilities. Those wood pellets are then transferred by train to ports on the East coast, where they are shipped to Europe to be used as an alternate fuel source.
Researchers have expressed serious concerns over the environmental impact of wood pellet production facilities. In a letter sent to Governor Roy Cooper in September 2017, the Medical Advocates for Healthy Air said the facilities emit air pollutants that are harmful to human health, and that the Enviva facility would add an unnecessary burden of disease on residents.
Over 100 scientists across the world expressed the dangers of wood pellet production facilities in a letter to Cooper in November 2017. It said that burning wood pellets and other biomass sources, which is often done at these facilities to fuel the production of more wood pellets, emits carbon dioxide at a higher rate than coal or natural gas.
The letter also identified these facilities as contributors to deforestation, due to the high volume of trees they need to cut down to produce wood pellets. Deforestation can also put already disadvantaged communities at a higher risk of flood damage.
Enviva identifies wood pellets as a renewable energy source, since the carbon released from burning wood can be made up for once a new tree is grown. Cesafsky said the company does not accept wood from forests if the intention is to convert the left-over land into agriculture or development.
Cesafsky also said that wood-based industry can promote forest growth.
In an interview with The Daily Tar Heel last November, Tim Searchinger, a researcher at Princeton University, said wood pellets may not be as renewable as advertised.
“They call it a renewable source because you can give the trees a chance to grow back and cancel out the carbon we’re releasing through burning,” Searchinger said. “That is true if you let the trees fully grow back. But for various reasons – including the inefficiencies because trees grow slowly – you’re actually increasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere for decades.”
‘Fighting behind the eight-ball’
When they found out that Enviva planned to build a new facility next to Dobbins Heights, the Concerned Citizens wanted to voice their opposition. But by the time they learned about the plans, the construction project was already in the works.
“Signatures have already been signed, discussions have already been had and now, here we are, fighting behind the eight-ball in a sense,” Bostic said.
In 2015, Enviva made the permit that gave it permission to build a facility in Richmond County public in The Richmond County Daily Journal.
That notice included a public comment period where Richmond County residents could voice their opinions on the facility’s construction. However, Bostic said many residents in Dobbins Heights aren’t subscribed to the paper and lacked the ability to see this notice.
The notice also lacked a specific address for the planned facility and listed a zip code for a different county, making it impossible for residents to know how close the wood pellet plant would be to their homes.
Derb Carter, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the permit was not corrected until the law center pointed out the required information that was missing to the DEQ.
No effort was made by the county commissioners to give citizens an additional comment period to voice their concerns after the facility’s address was added to the permit, Carter said.
“If there is a process, it is wholly inadequate in how they approach those kinds of issues,” Carter said. “The reality is these types of facilities have a tendency to be located in areas where the population is not politically strong enough to defend their communities.”
Bostic said he doesn’t believe Enviva will hire many Dobbins Heights residents to work at the facility once it is built.
While the facility will create approximately 80 new jobs, Cesafsky said Enviva doesn’t know how many of these roles will be filled by community members.
“We make efforts to hire locally because we want people who are invested in the community where they are working,” she said.
Fully-operating Enviva facilities in other parts of North Carolina have been met with complaints from residents. In Sampson County, where Enviva began operations in 2017, Jane Thornton lives the closest of any resident to the company’s facility.
Thornton used a monitor to measure air quality around her home for months before and after the facility opened. She found a 75 percent increase in fine particulates in the air after Enviva began operation.
Thornton said that beyond air quality, the facility creates noise pollution from operating 24/7 that disrupts people’s sleep and productivity. She also said the high volume of traffic has posed a problem to the community.
“The truck traffic by my house on a little old country road has torn it all to pieces,” Thornton said.
Cesafsky said Enviva worked with the Sampson County government to set up a new stop light, along with other precautions to reduce traffic.
While the Enviva facility in Richmond County has only recently broken ground, David predicted that when it is built, these kind of problems will devastate Dobbins Heights.
“They will see what this is going to do,” David said. “It’s going to be an explosion.”
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