A Georgia judge has cleared the way for a hearing on claims that the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) discriminated against minority residents of a small town by approving an air pollution permit for a wood pellet manufacturer.
Judge Shakara Barnes last week partially denied EPD’s motion to dismiss the complaint over its decision to allow Spectrum Energy Georgia to build a new pellet processing facility in Adel.
Wood pellets have become a booming industry in Georgia to feed demand from many European nations, which use the material as fuel to produce electricity.
Adel, a town of 5,500 between Tifton and Valdosta, is about half white and half Black. But the Spectrum factory is the second wood pellet mill approved for construction on the western side of the city, where residents are predominantly people of color who say they already suffer from pollution from multiple industrial sources.
The Southern Environmental Law Center and Concerned Citizens of Cook County filed the complaint arguing the state had a duty to consider the demographics of the area and the cumulative impact of other pollution sources before approving the permit. The state has countered that it follows the same process for all permit applicants.
Treva Gear, founder of Concerned Citizens of Cook County, said she was “ecstatic” over the judge’s decision to hear the evidence.
“It felt like it was the first time we’ve had a true opportunity for justice,” she said. “We’re about to actually be heard by somebody who can do something.”
Representatives for Spectrum, which is also party to the case, did not respond to requests for comment. A representative of Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, whose office is representing EPD, declined to comment citing pending litigation.
Jennifer Whitfield, a senior attorney in the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Georgia office, said construction of the plant would worsen “the historic environmental discrimination on the Black and Brown community next door.”
“The agency has a duty to administer permits in a nondiscriminatory manner,” she said in an emailed statement. “The residents who face the risk of breathing polluted air, all for Spectrum’s profits, deserve a say.”
That hearing is currently scheduled for Dec. 12-16.
Wood pellets have become a popular commodity in the forest-rich southern U.S. over the past 15 years. The vast majority are shipped overseas to be burned as fuel for power generation. The United Kingdom and the European Union in particular have embraced burning wood — often referred to as biomass — as a renewable alternative to coal, but many climate scientists say it’s harmful for the environment.
Pellet mills like the ones proposed for Adel do not burn the pellets on site. Rather, the dispute centers on the local impacts on surrounding communities of manufacturing the pellets.
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.
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