It’s been promoted as an economic victory by Gov. Phil Bryant, and labeled an environmental threat by the actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
On Tuesday, a state air quality permit board is scheduled to decide if the largest wood pellet plant in the world can move toward construction in the southern Mississippi town of Lucedale.
Proposed by the Maryland-based company Enviva, the $140 million plant would take local timber and grind it into pellets, which would then be shipped to Europe and Japan to be burned for energy. The company plans to build an associated $60 million Pascagoula port terminal.
State and local leaders call the facility an economic boon, and have promised millions of dollars in incentives and tax breaks to Enviva. Officials say the projects will employ 120 people and reinvigorate a stagnant logging industry in the southeast corner of the state.
“The pellet mill will be one of the greatest things that’s happened to George County in my lifetime,” George County Supervisor Henry Cochran told the Clarion Ledger.
But groups including the Environmental Integrity Project and the NAACP have raised a slew of concerns. Chief among them is the facility’s impact on air quality, which the Mississippi Environmental Quality Permit Board is expected to study Tuesday. The groups point to similar pellet mills around the Southeast that have faced repeated dirty air and dust complaints from residents and businesses — including Enviva’s existing Mississippi plant in Amory.
Modeling conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project found the Lucedale plant’s emissions would push several air pollutants into unsafe territory, under federal Clean Air Act standards.
“(T)he plant will emit air toxics at levels that present unacceptable threats to human health,” the Environmental Integrity Project wrote in a letter to the state. Enviva officials claim the group’s modeling isn’t accurate.
“From our perspective, if they want to build this plant, and they want to comply with the Clean Air Act, they’re going to have to go back to the drawing board and redesign some things,” Patrick Anderson, an attorney with the group, said of Enviva.
Boost to George County economy, timber industry
George County, population 24,000, has an unemployment rate of 5.8, higher than the state average. Many residents commute to jobs on the Coast, or to Mobile, Community Development Director Ken Flanagan said.
County leaders hope the pellet plant generates an additional 300 jobs — loggers and truckers serving the facility, plus other indirect service positions. Flanagan said it would allow more residents to stay close to home.
“This community has been waiting for these jobs since the paper mills closed,” said Flanagan, referring to mills that shuttered in Moss Point and Mobile in the early 2000s.
In a region where pine trees have long been a lucrative cash crop and economic driver, there is just one remaining sawmill nearby and prices have bottomed out, he said, “because there’s so much supply.”
To attract Enviva to the George County Industrial Park county officials offered millions in property tax breaks over the next decade. The state has offered about $4 million in assistance for upgrades to the site, Flanagan said. The U.S. Department of Commerce also recently kicked in $1.4 million for further upgrades to the industrial park.
Flanagan said officials hope Enviva’s arrival attracts other companies to the park. He said several international companies toured the area already.
“This will provide not only jobs, but probably a bunch of indirect jobs, and the local tax base and schools will benefit from it,” said state Rep. Manly Barton, R-Moss Point.
Wood energy a growing industry
Jennifer Jenkins, Enviva’s chief sustainability officer, said worldwide demand for wood energy continues to grow. Company officials said they view George County as an ideal location to satisfy that demand, considering it’s surrounded by 4.3 million acres of trees.
“Countries around the world are creating policies that encourage adoption of low greenhouse gas emission options that we provide,” Jenkins told the Clarion Ledger. “Countries are seeking to replace coal, and wood pellets are an available alternative to coal for power production.”
Wood energy plants have multiplied around Europe in recent years, after the European Union decided a decade ago that biomass was a renewable energy source. Countries including the United Kingdom subsidized the industry in a push to wean themselves off fossil fuels.
The European growth has led to a corresponding boom in pellet logging and production facilities in the Southeast. But environmental groups and scientists argue biomass isn’t as environmentally friendly as companies like Enviva make it out to be.
While supporters say it’s a renewable energy source because the harvested trees eventually grow back, scientists have long raised concerns about smog and other particulate matter put off by biomass plants. And around the Southeast, opponents of the Lucedale plant and similar facilities — including DiCaprio — have raised concerns about how deforestation hastens the effects of climate change.
“Trees remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and burning wood returns it,” wrote biogeochemist William Schlesinger, who has advised the Environmental Projection Agency on the issue. “But recent evidence shows that the use of wood as fuel is likely to result in net CO2 emissions and may endanger forest biodiversity.”
Air quality complaints
A central concern of environmental groups with the Lucedale facility is its emissions during pellet-making. The process involves compressing and heat-drying wood dust.
The Environmental Integrity Project modeling found the plant’s small particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions would cause Clean Air Act violations, especially during “bypass operations” — when certain pollution-controlling equipment would be allowed to be switched off. Such air contaminants can contribute to heart and lung disease.
The group also raised concerns about “fugitive” wood dust escaping into nearby neighborhoods. It said the initial draft permit did not include enough requirements to control dust — a cause of frequent complaints at other pellet facilities in the region.
Enviva’s Amory plant has consistently garnered complaints from local residents and business owners due to the dust and smoke it emits, the Clarion Ledger found. It has received two notices of violation from state environmental regulators, last year and in 2017.
A Monroe Journal article from 2016 described a “funnel cloud of dust over the plant that can be unsettling when reaching into another cloud above,” and an alderman reported residents of his ward “wheezing, coughing and constantly washing the dust off their vehicles.”
Similar air quality concerns arose at an Enviva facility in North Carolina, where the company recently settled a legal complaint by agreeing to add more pollution controls.
Dust and pollution complaints have also come from pellet manufacturing facilities owned by a different company in the southwestern Mississippi town of Gloster, and at a facility in Louisiana, according to news reports and documents submitted to state environmental regulators.
Enviva officials said they are taking extra steps to ensure the Lucedale plant’s emissions are kept to a minimum. Yana Kravtsova, vice president of environmental affairs and chief compliance officer, said the Environmental Integrity Project’s modeling had “inaccuracies and technical flaws,” and the company had been working with the MDEQ to address the group’s concerns. She did not specify the flaws.
“This will be the most controlled wood pellet facility in the world, or at least to our knowledge. Definitely in the United States,” Kravtsova said. “We are controlling every major source of emissions on this facility with state-of-the art technology.”
Department of Environmental Quality staff earlier this year wrote they would recommend the board approve the air emissions equipment permit. That was before a May public hearing, however, and before concerns and modeling by the Environmental Integrity Project, joined by at least a dozen other organizations, were submitted to the agency. “The review of the comments could impact the draft permit’s conditions or MDEQ’s recommendation to the permit board,” agency spokesman Robbie Wilbur said in an email last month.
The air quality permit is the last significant step before Enviva breaks ground, which could occur later this summer. Company officials say construction will be finished in 12 to 18 months.
If you go: The Environmental Quality Permit Board is scheduled to consider an air permit for Enviva’s plant during its upcoming meeting, 9 a.m. Tuesday at 515 E. Amite St. in Jackson.
More: Wood pellets plant creates new markets for Mississippi timber
More: Mississippi deserves better than Enviva’s wood pellet mill
More: Andy Gipson: Out-of-state interests mobilizing against Mississippi’s working forests
Contact Luke Ramseth at 601-961-7050 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @lramseth on Twitter. Please support our work at the Clarion Ledger by subscribing.