Wood pellet mills’ air violations raise concerns over biomass industry

Mills emit harmful air pollutants; advocates say state regulators’ fines, enforcement are too lax
Wood pellets have become a popular fuel for producing electricity in parts of Europe. Georgia has emerged as a top exporter of pellets.  (AP Photo/Thomas Kienzle)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Wood pellets have become a popular fuel for producing electricity in parts of Europe. Georgia has emerged as a top exporter of pellets. (AP Photo/Thomas Kienzle)

A south Georgia wood pellet mill was recently fined nearly $52,000 for a series of state environmental violations, including bypassing its air pollution controls.

While the fine represents one of the larger penalties issued by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) for air pollution in recent years, advocates say it’s a paltry sum.

“It’s really a drop in the bucket in terms of the profits and the money moving around in this industry,” said Heather Hillaker, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Hazlehurst Wood Pellets in rural Jeff Davis County is part of a booming biomass industry in the Southeast that converts organic material like trees and wood scraps into pellets that are burned to produce electricity.

The vast majority of wood pellets produced in the region are exported to the United Kingdom and Europe, where they are heavily subsidized as a renewable alternative to coal because trees can be regrown. Climate scientists, however, have cast doubt on that logic, pointing out that burning wood still releases carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

For the communities where wood pellets are produced, the climate implications are secondary. The mills are regulated because they emit harmful air pollutants but advocates say state regulators’ enforcements are too lax.

The Georgia EPD renewed Hazlehurst’s permit as a major source of emissions on May 2, 2022. The renewal came during a 14-day period when the facility was not using its pollution control equipment “for business and raw material supplier continuity purposes,” the company told EPD, according to a consent order issued by the state in April 2023.

Although that transgression did not come to light until later, records show the mill had a history of poor compliance that ultimately contributed to the size of the fine. The consent order says Hazlehurst bypassed its pollution controls for about 48 days, and at other times did not operate those controls properly, nor did the company report problems to the state when they were discovered.

In its written responses, the company provided emissions calculations that put its pollution below the limits in its permit. It also said the deviations flagged by EPD were either “a significant improvement” or unavoidable.

A February application by Hazlehurst to EPD to expand its facility is pending. The mill is one of several owned by or affiliated with Fram Renewable Fuels that have been cited for violations and fined thousands of dollars. Fram Renewable Fuels did not respond to requests for comment left by email and phone.

Sara Lips, a spokesperson for the EPD, wrote in an email that EPD uses a settlement calculation worksheet with supporting documents to calculate fine amounts. Asked why the facility was issued a new permit given its history, she said that in general, the agency “does not hold up permitting actions because of enforcement activity unless there is a direct correlation” between the two.

“The reason almost all enforcement actions don’t hold up the issuance of a permit is because the permit specifies what the company is supposed to do, so when the company doesn’t do those things correctly, EPD takes enforcement action to address and rectify those specific violations,” she wrote in a follow-up.

Hillaker, the SELC attorney, said the enforcement appears to be lacking. EPD has a cap of $25,000 per day, per violation. Hazlehurst’s fine of nearly $52,000 equates to only two days of violations when the company either bypassed its pollution controls or didn’t use them correctly for a significant chunk of time over the year.

“In my opinion, that is really undervaluing the issues here, which are repeated and substantial,” she said.

The SELC has filed a Civil Rights complaint to the federal government against Georgia EPD over what it characterizes as the disproportionate impacts of pollution on protected groups, including racial minorities. The complaint is based the state’s decision to green light two large wood pellet facilities in the same neighborhood of Adel where the community is predominantly Black and Hispanic. That complaint is pending.

Treva Gear, a community organizer and Georgia state manager for the Dogwood Alliance, said she was disgusted by what appears to be a pattern of violations and weak enforcement across the industry.

“What gives me pause is the way that Georgia EPD currently monitors these plants,” she said. Some mills, she added, have been allowed to repeat violations “over and over again, without any real repercussions.”

Two other pellet mills in Fram’s portfolio, Telfair Forest Products and Appling County Pellets, have been the subject of seven consent orders from EPD and paid more than $55,000 in fines between them.

Georgia EPD’s largest air pollution fines of past five years:

Pinova, $185,000, 4/28/22

International Paper Company – Rome Linerboard Mill, $142,607, 4/18/19

ADM Valdosta, $58,428, 11/16/22

Blount Construction Company, $53,500, 2/7/22

Hazlehurst Wood Pellets, $51,722, 4/14/23

Sterilization Services of Georgia, $51,000, 1/7/20


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