Air permit challenged for expansion of wood pellet manufacturing plant

Cranes lift logs bound for wood-pellet production at an Enviva facility in Ahoskie, North Carolina. (© Kathleen Sullivan)

SELC and the Environmental Integrity Project, on behalf of their client Clean Air Carolina, this week challenged an air quality permit the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality issued to Enviva Hamlet, a wood pellet manufacturing facility currently under construction in Richmond County, North Carolina. The petition was filed in the Office of Administrative Hearings. 

In the air quality permit DEQ allowed Enviva Hamlet to expand and modify its operations by, among other things, significantly increasing the facility’s production of wood pellets, but failed to ensure that the corresponding increases in air pollution did not violate the Clean Air Act.

“DEQ greatly underestimated the amount of air pollution that will be released from the Hamlet plant,” said SELC Attorney Heather Hillaker. “As a result, Enviva Hamlet was able to bypass the more stringent air pollution control requirements that apply to major sources of air pollution, like the requirement to use best-available-control technology.”

Clean Air Carolina’s challenge focuses specifically on emissions of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, a group of air pollutants that contribute to smog and can cause breathing issues in vulnerable populations.

“Richmond County currently has one of the poorest health ratings in the state,” said June Blotnick, Executive Director of Clean Air Carolina. “Residents around the Enviva Hamlet facility deserve air pollution controls that protect the health of workers and the community.”

Last November, SELC and EIP submitted formal comments on the draft Enviva Hamlet air permit on behalf of Clean Air Carolina and several other North Carolina and national groups. Those comments demonstrated that the emission estimates Enviva submitted, and which DEQ relied on when classifying the facility as “minor,” were inaccurate and severely underestimated.

“When you look at the underlying data, Enviva’s numbers are literally too good to be true,” said Patrick Anderson, associate attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project. “Every data point in the public record shows that Enviva will violate the Clean Air Act the moment it starts operating.”

The groups’ comments also called on DEQ to scrutinize Enviva’s emission estimates and revise the permit accordingly.

“This industry consistently underestimates emissions, so it is especially vital that agencies like DEQ verify the accuracy of the industry’s emissions data,” said Keri Powell, attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project. “DEQ didn’t do its homework. Instead, DEQ just accepted Enviva’s outrageously low air pollution estimates without questions.”   

Although DEQ did improve the final permit by implementing stricter testing requirements, the final permit still suffered from the same fundamental flaws identified during the public comment period. Of the new testing requirements, Hillaker explained, “we certainly agree with DEQ that more emissions testing in this industry is necessary, but after-the-fact testing does not satisfy the Clean Air Act’s preconstruction permitting program, which is meant to ensure that facilities like Enviva Hamlet assess their air pollution impacts and install up-to-date air pollution controls before they start operating.”

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