Living in cancer alley is pretty bad for those of us here in Louisiana, but one town in Mississippi is being left unable to breathe by a so-called green energy project put forth by European climate subsidies. The Huffington Post has reported that subsidies are funneling billions of dollars into wood-burning power plants that harvest trees from the US South and that this industry is taking a toll locally and globally. [Editor’s note: To those who follow this stuff closely, this is not really a revelation in general. We probably wrote about the same thing 5–10 years ago here on CleanTechnica, but it’s still an issue not broadly known or covered, and the Huffington Post piece does bring a lot more of a personal touch to an abstract issue.]
The article shared the story of Carmella Wren-Causey of Gloster, Mississippi, who moved back to her hometown where she grew up. At 60, she had long since stopped smoking cigarettes but was having a harder and harder time breathing after she moved back. After a few months, even just working in the garden left her so dizzy that she would feel faint. Chores such as taking the garbage to the road would leave her so breathless that she had to take several breaks just to catch her breath. Even climbing into her pickup truck required its own process. Lift up one leg, take a deep breath, lean in, and then finish climbing in. And soon, she required an oxygen tank just to sleep at night.
It wasn’t just her. Her two pugs, Rayray and Tiny, both died suddenly. They, too, were struggling to breathe. She told the Huffington Post that many of the residents living there stay sick — mostly with asthma and respiratory-related issues. In tears, she said:
“The truth is, you got people around here that stay sick. You got people around here that has to use asthma pumps that didn’t have respiratory problems before.
“I go to bed, my lungs hurt. I wake up, my lungs hurt. It’s horrible.”
I understand her pain. I have asthma and nearly died from it when I was 14. Well, I actually did “die,” but was revived and had amnesia from being braindead for so long. Recovery from that was a struggle of its own. So, I understand what she meant about her lungs hurting. For those who don’t have any lung issues, sometimes, the very air itself can hurt your lungs when you do breathe. And having an asthma attack feels as if there is something inside you choking you.
What Is Sucking Up All The Oxygen Out Of Gloster, Mississippi?
The article noted that Wren-Causey lives near Drax, a British utility giant that makes wood pellets from large tree trunks. The plant makes wood pellets so small that they resemble vitamin capsules, then ships them back to the UK to be burned in power plants. Drax opened 8 years ago in Gloster, enabling the town to become a part of the $52 billion global supply chain for wood-fired electricity. That industry is slated to grow around 6% or more annually this decade. Many residents of Gloster saw the Drax plant as a miracle. It was the first sign of life since the lumber mill closed in 2002, which had essentially turned Gloster into a ghost town.
However, this plant has a dark side. Its appetite for wood means reducing the local forests that once provided habitats to deer, squirrels, and other natural wildlife. Also, Gloster is made up of mostly Black people with median incomes barely touching $10,000 a year. And we all know that Black and Indigenous communities are the most vulnerable to impacts of climate change and the effects of the fossil fuel industry.
The article noted that there are several ways a wood pellet plant can pollute the air. One such way was seen on a Wednesday afternoon. A grayish cloud was being emitted by a smokestack. That cloud was most likely filled with volatile organic compounds (VOC) which contribute to smog and ozone pollution. These are key triggers for asthma, allergies, and lung conditions. In addition to these VOCs, additional VOCs are emitted into the air when hammermills shred trees and fully process the pellets.
The industry and regulators practically never account for the VOCs emitted in permitting, a 2018 study by the Environmental Integrity Project found. The report, titled Dirty Deception, focuses on how the wood biomass industry is skirting the Clean Air Act. The study found a lot if interesting tidbits, including that 7 out of 21 wood pellet plants violated their permit limits by releasing illegal amounts of pollution. Another 4 plants had faulty permits issued by state governments that failed to require pollution control equipment that was required by the federal Clean Air Act.
The 21 wood pellet plants that export to Europe have emitted a total of 16,000 tons of air pollutants that are a threat to health. In those tons, there were over 2,500 tons of particulate matter (soot). Also in that pollution were 3,200 tons of nitrogen oxides and 2,100 tons of carbon monoxide. Annually, these plants emit 3.1 million tons of greenhouse gases.
According to the report, “One of the most troubling trends in the wood pellet industry is that facilities that should face the most rigorous air permitting standards are actually the least controlled and dirtiest. Under a Clean Air Act program called ‘new source review,’ new or modified major sources of air pollution are required to reduce emissions to the level achievable by using the best available control technology.
“Contrary to that legal requirement, states allow construction of the country’s largest wood pellet manufacturing plants without controls, or with inadequate controls, for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), an air pollutant that causes smog and respiratory problems. This is despite the fact that extremely effective VOC controls capable of reducing emissions by 90 to 95 percent are in widespread use at similar wood pellet manufacturing plants.”
The report noted that Mississippi, Florida, and North Carolina were allowing the wood pellet plants to emit well above a 250-ton per year threshold for major sources without installing the legally required air pollution controls, and cited the Drax plant as an example:
“For example, the Drax plant in Amite County, Mississippi, near McComb, emits more than 900 tons per year of VOCs — more than three times the amount that normally triggers a requirement for the installation of best available pollution control equipment.”
This Is Supposed To Be A Green Or Clean Energy Project
Apparently, this plant is supposed to be clean energy or green energy–related. The article noted that the European Union and British regulators made the decision that emissions from wood-fired power plants wouldn’t be counted as the same type of pollution as from fossil fuel generators. This makes companies like Drax eligible for billions in subsidies for “green energy,” and it received just over $1 billion in clean power subsidies last year.
The funding was supposed to be for those companies cutting emissions, not labeling them as a different type of emissions. Although here in the US, federal incentives to build wood-burning power plants are much smaller than compared to Europe’s, many states in the South have given massive tax breaks to firms such as Drax. And Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is marketing wood burning as a new technology that pulls more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits.
Although it may be labeled clean energy or green energy, it’s still not, and it’s counterproductive to have such policies.
You can read the full Huffington Post article here.