Wood pellet manufacturing facilities, built to meet European demand for purportedly low-carbon fuel, raise parallels to the slave trade for Black and Indigenous communities in the American South, Scalawag Magazine, in collaboration with Southerly and Environmental Health News, reports. 

Demand for wood pellets, which can be burned in coal-fired power plants with minimal retrofitting, is driven largely by a loophole in EU and UK carbon accounting that essentially treats electricity generated by burning imported wood pellets as zero-carbon electricity. In reality, however, studies show burning wood pellets produces more carbon, and generates less energy per unit, than coal, and any “renewable” benefits from tree regrowth will take at least decades to materialize. Wood pellet production requires the destruction of biodiverse hardwood forests in favor of monoculture tree plantations. “[O]ften these naturally grown forests are cut down and replaced with something that’s essentially a plantation,” Kenneth Richter, a Germany-based environmental policy consultant for NRDC, said. 

“I can’t breathe”

The acute harms of wood pellet production are immediate and pressing for Belinda Joyner and other residents of Northampton County, North Carolina — where Enviva Biomass has been producing at least 550,000 metric tons per year since 2013 — and dozens of other low-wealth Black and Indigenous communities across the American South. Just as the impacts of climate change amplify the harms caused by systemic racism, the pollution caused by industries that cause it also harm BIPOC and low-wealth communities first and worst. Wood pellet mills exporting to the EU emit thousands of tons of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds — associated with a range of illnesses, from respiratory and heart disease to cancer. Many wood pellet mills frequently emit 60 to 80 tons of PM2.5 per year, even after installing pollution controls, and researchers have linked exposure to PM2.5 pollution to increased COVID-19 death rates. “When I looked at the officer that was choking George Floyd, and he said ‘I can’t breathe,’ this is the same thing that the industries are doing to our communities,” Joyner said. “It’s fine to have jobs, but give us some jobs that don’t kill us.”

Northampton County is 57% Black and is one of North Carolina’s most economically distressed counties: Twenty-one percent of Northampton County residents live in poverty, one and a half times the statewide poverty rate. 

Siting shows racist, extractive legacies

The Enviva plant’s location is not an accident. Wood pellet mills in the American South are 50% more likely to be located in communities of color that are already overburdened by toxic industries. From Northampton County, North Carolina, to Alabama’s Black Belt, wood pellet manufacturers target communities of color because they believe they will be able to more easily push aside local opposition. They are also looking to expand and build even more plants in Alabama and Mississippi where Rev. Michael Malcom, executive director of Alabama Interfaith Power and Light, and Mississippi-based Katherine Egland, Chair of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Committee and Co-founder of the Education, Economics, Environmental, Climate and Health Organization are working together to organize local communities, including the predominantly white rural community of Lucedale, Mississippi where Enviva pushed through local opposition with promises of jobs and economic development — promises of which many activists are dubious — and is now building a new wood pellet plant.

As Egland and Malcom have organized across the South, the historical parallels of the wood pellet industry to the extractive, racist, and globally-intertwined legacies of slavery have become clear. “I am reminded with the wood pellet trade, if you look at the map of the wood pellet trade states and the former cotton trade states, they are the same,” Egland said. “The UK ignored the human rights abuses of the cotton trade, with slavery, now they are imperiling the descendants of that same population with the wood pellets. [The U.S. South] also happens to be the most climate-vulnerable region in the nation.” (Scalawag Magazine, Southerly, and Environmental Health News)