Enviva seeks to increase production of wood pellets at Ahoskie NC plant

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Wood pellet maker Enviva is seeking a permit that would allow it to increase production at its Ahoskie plant to around 630,000 tonnes per year, an increase of 31%. The Ahoskie plant, where the plume of steam rises from a chimney, is one of four that Enviva operates in North Carolina.

The News and the Observer

Concerned about climate change and environmental justice, advocates across North Carolina on Tuesday opposed a Maryland company’s plan to expand a wood pellet plant in Ahoskie, even as the business community local has pledged to support the expansion.

Enviva, headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, is seeking an air quality permit from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality that would allow it to increase its annual production at Ahoskie. from 481,000 tons of pellets per year to 630,000 tons of pellets per year. By installing equipment that effectively prevents dangerous emissions by burning them, Enviva hopes to be able to use more softwood trees, such as pine, to make pellets.

Environmental advocates question why Enviva didn’t install pollution controls before now and argue that increased production means the destruction of more forests in eastern North Carolina, potentially exacerbating flooding and literally reducing the region’s ability to capture carbon dioxide. The increased plant capacity would also lead to more greenhouse gas emissions during the production process.

At four North Carolina plants, including Ahoskie, Enviva extracts wood from North Carolina forests and processes it into pellets – more than 2.5 million tons of pellets per year – which are shipped to Europe.

Pellets are burned instead of coal under a controversial European Union policy that classifies them as a green energy source despite the fact that burning pellets releases more carbon dioxide which heats the atmosphere than burning coal.

The Enviva factory is on the eastern edge of a commercial district of Ahoskie. Moments before Tuesday’s hearing, a cloud of steam was visible emerging from the factory more than a mile away, remaining clearly in view as a driver drove past a grocery store, car washes and fast food restaurants.

In addition to the Ahoskie facility, Enviva also operates pellet plants in Faison, Hamlet and Northampton. As a condition of the 2019 settlements with Clean Air Carolina and DEQ, Enviva agreed to add catalytic oxidizers and thermal oxidizers to its Faison and Hamlet plants.

Members of the Ahoskie business community joined government officials and Enviva employees on Tuesday in asking the DEQ to approve the permit. Environmental advocates have urged the agency to deny the permit or demand stricter monitoring.

“Not insignificant harm”

Throughout the hearing, Enviva officials and some community members touted the company’s support for things like defibrillators at the senior center, Thanksgiving turkey donations, and equipment to the local fire company to get a higher rating, thereby reducing insurance rates.

Amy Braswell, executive vice president of the Ahoskie Chamber of Commerce, said 86 families directly benefit from working at Enviva’s plant, which has also resulted in growth for the area’s trucking industry.

“We don’t have the luxury people in other places have to find other jobs and these families are very, very grateful and very grateful,” Braswell said.

No one who lives in Ahoskie spoke against the plant at Tuesday’s hearing.

For environmental groups, these donations and jobs for some do not offset the emissions Enviva has released into the air of Ahoskie since operations began at the plant in 2011.

Emily Zucchino, campaign organizer at the Dogwood Alliance, said the company should have installed the stricter air quality controls it now offers before it started operating.

“I am saddened that our North Carolina community is divided by companies that make us choose between jobs on the one hand and our health and environment on the other,” Zucchino said.

Zucchino was one of many advocates asking the DEQ to deny the permit or at least demand that Enviva constantly monitor its broadcasts.

Enviva purchased the facility in 2010 and upgraded it before beginning operations in 2011. Yana Kravtsova, Enviva’s executive vice president of international markets and public affairs, said that’s why the thermal oxidizer is not part of the emission controls there. The other North Carolina plants have all the oxidizers.

Pine wood creates a wood pellet that burns at higher temperatures, Kravtsova said, emitting more volatile organic compounds when turned into a pellet.

“Pine increases volatile organic compounds and thermal oxidizers incinerate these compounds. So it’s an investment for us,” Kravtsova said.

By adding the thermal oxidizer, the Ahoskie facility could reduce some emissions while increasing production. For example, it would reduce the potential amount of tiny particles called PM2.5 produced by the plant from 129.63 tonnes to 45.49 tonnes per year and decrease volatile organic compound emissions from 391.6 tonnes to 125.43 tonnes. per year.

But additional production would also increase the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the Enviva plant, increasing the annual potential from 162,292 tons to 238,661 tons.

Jasmine Washington, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, asked DEQ to consider the broader impact of the Enviva facility expansion. Adding generation capacity, Washington said, would lead to increased truck traffic, odors and dust in the surrounding community.

“This is not insignificant damage to the families who will be burdened with this damage every day,” Washington said, adding that DEQ also failed to account for the other 35 permits or environmental incidents within a one-mile radius. mile from Enviva facility.

Others opposed to the facility pointed to the uncertainty surrounding European regulations that effectively create Enviva’s business model.

A European question

Earlier this year, the European Parliament’s Environment Committee voted to remove woody biomass – wood pellets – from the sources that members of the European Union can rely on for their renewable energy goals. But this was followed in July by Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy Committee voting to support current policies in favor of pellet production.

During Tuesday night’s public hearing, environmental advocates urged DEQ to heed the growing skepticism in European countries about biomass as a fuel source.

In addition to the Environment Committee vote, they highlighted comments by the UK Business Secretary made last week. As the Financial Times reported, Kwasi Kwarteng said shipping pellets from the United States “makes no sense” and “is not sustainable.”

At Tuesday’s public hearing, Cindy Elmore, professor of communications at East Carolina University, said, “What Enviva wants to do, metaphorically speaking, is make hay while the sun is shining and chop down as many trees as possible as quickly as possible, no matter where they are.

Enviva officials remain optimistic about the regulatory activity of the European Parliament. Wood pellets, Kravtsova said, are not only an integral part of what the European Union classifies as renewable energy, but also a necessary source of energy security.

As member countries move away from coal, they need a hot-burning fuel source to use for things like cement production, steel production and, potentially, diesel fuel. sustainable aviation. Enviva officials want their product to fill these gaps.

“The industry is growing,” Kravtsova said. “It may be different, moving to new applications, and we’re reviewing and exploring that.”

Anyone interested in the installation can submit comments by emailing [email protected] with the subject line “Enviva Ahoskie 20B” or by calling 919-707-8446 and leaving a voicemail. The deadline for public comments is 5 p.m. Friday.

This story was produced with the financial support of 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of a freelance journalism fellowship program. The N&O retains full editorial control of the work.

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Adam Wagner covers climate change and other environmental issues in North Carolina. Her work is produced with the financial support of 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of a freelance journalism fellowship program. Wagner’s previous work at The News & Observer included coverage of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and North Carolina’s recovery from recent hurricanes. He previously worked at the Wilmington StarNews.

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