Proposed Georgia wood pellet mill at center of environmental fight

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Adel becomes battleground over industrial sites planned in minority neighborhoods

Activists and a group of South Georgia residents are calling for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to adopt stricter oversight of wood pellet mills popping up across the region to feed global demand for biomass energy.

The call for federal action comes as residents of Cook County also have asked a Georgia judge to revoke a state air permit granted to one of two pellet plants planned in Adel, a small town of 5,500 between Tifton and Valdosta. Adel is roughly half white and half Black. But both pellet factories are planned for the western side of the city, where residents are predominantly people of color who say they already suffer from pollution from multiple industrial sources.

Wood pellets have become big business over the past 15 years nationally and in Georgia. Most pellets made in Georgia are exported to the United Kingdom and the European Union. The pellets are burned for electricity and some countries see biomass — fuel from organic sources, often wood — as a renewable alternative to coal.

In 2021, the United States exported 7.5 million metric tons, more than any other nation, up 23% from 2015, according to the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association. Some 1.78 million metric tons were exported from Georgia ports last year.

Industry groups and some forestry experts say wood pellets can help fight climate change and have other benefits, such as recycling lumber waste.

But hundreds of climate and environmental scientists urged world leaders in a letter last year not to burn wood as a fossil fuel-alternative. Burning wood releases more carbon than coal, while re-growing trees takes time, they argued — time the international community does not have if it is to head off the worst outcomes of climate change.

Wood pellet mills have also faced pushback from neighboring residents. There are eight active pellet mills in the state, according to the Georgia Forestry Commission. Several more have been proposed, including the two in Adel.

Treva Gear, founder of Concerned Citizens of Cook County, is among those fighting the proposed mills in Adel over pollution concerns.

Her group and the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a petition with a state court to revoke the air permit issued by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to one plant proposed by Spectrum Energy Georgia LLC. A judge has said she will issue a preliminary ruling on the matter by Nov. 8.

At a recent demonstration outside the EPA’s Atlanta office, Gear demanded the federal government step in.

President Joe Biden made fighting climate change a top campaign promise. He also pledged to prioritize environmental justice, which seeks to address the damage done to low income communities, communities of color and Native American Tribes that have historically faced a disproportionate burden from polluting industries and infrastructure.

“The Environmental Protection Agency — who are they protecting?” Gear said. “Not us ... not when you put in two wood pellet plants in the same town, one-mile apart from each other, in the back door of the community.”

The state permit application filed by Spectrum says the plant will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and emit particulates and hazardous pollutants. Because of its size and the quantity of pollutants, it will have to apply for an additional permit under what is known as the Title V program within 12 months of operation, according to its permit.

In a statement, Spectrum said it would provide hundreds of jobs while ensuring environmentally friendly operations with continuous emissions monitoring.

“Spectrum Energy is committed to sourcing materials from local foresters, sawmills, and other forestry companies further supporting rural Georgia communities,” it said.

Gear’s group and the SELC allege Georgia EPD failed to conduct an independent analysis of Spectrum’s potential to emit pollutants. It also says the state is required to take into account the demographics of the neighboring community to determine whether the permit has the effect of discriminating against people of color and other protected groups.

Jennifer Whitfield, a senior attorney in SELC’s Georgia office, said in an email her organization is not alleging Georgia EPD intentionally discriminated.

“These are populations who have been inhaling or exposed to more than their fair share of pollution for a very long time,” she said. “While we can’t undo history, we can recognize that these individuals have some unique histories that need to be taken into account when we’re considering what is safe and what is fair.”

She noted that the federal EPA does not have the authority to overrule the judge in the current state case, but it does have the authority to enforce its own discrimination regulations.

Georgia EPD and state Attorney General Chris Carr’s office declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

In its legal filings, the state has asked the court to dismiss the claims. It disputed allegations it failed in its due diligence, saying Spectrum submitted “a plethora of information” and Georgia EPD conducted a thorough review that included potential impacts to surrounding communities.

The agency also notes that the state did not receive comments on the case from the EPA, nor has the federal government instructed it to change anything about its permitting approval process based on civil rights law.

According to the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool, the neighborhood in Adel where Spectrum would be located is among the most exposed in the country when it comes to cancer-causing air toxins.

Gear called Spectrum’s permit a “slap in the face” after her group had conveyed their concerns to the EPA’s environmental justice office.

The EPA’s regional office issued a statement saying it is important for the agency to consider cumulative impacts on minority communities.

“The agency has been aggressively implementing programs and initiatives to embed environmental justice, civil rights and equity across all programs,” the EPA statement said.


A note of disclosure

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