US Faith Leader to Visit UK, Urging: Cut Carbon Not Forests

"Instead of harming vulnerable communities of color in the U.S., the U.K. should be rapidly shifting to secure, cheap, clean renewable energy like wind and solar," says Reverend Leo Woodberry.

A pellet facility in a Mississippi community's backyard


People's Justice Council/Rev. Michael Malcolm

Written with Rita Frost, Campaigns Director, Dogwood Alliance

Reverend Leo Woodberry, environmental justice leader, brings his first-hand account of the harm Drax causes to poor communities in the U.S. Southeast like his to the UK this week (Feb. 4-9).

Rev. Woodberry is the pastor of Kingdom Living Temple and the executive director of a direct aid organization in Florence, South Carolina. He's a known environmental justice leader in the United States, having been involved with it since the movement was born in the 1990s. The cause has taken him to Appalachia, New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, and to African villages; to the White House, the United Nations, and annual COPs held in Poland and Spain. In 2001, Woodberry attended the United Nations Conference on Racism and Xenophobia and contributed to the environmental statement added to the UNDHR signed by 161 countries.

Advocating against bioenergy and for the vulnerable communities harmed by pellet mills is one of Rev. Woodberry’s main areas of expertise. “We have to put justice first. We have to put human rights first. We have to put our planet first,” Woodberry has said. “And where there is no justice, there will be no peace.”

As I’ve explained previously, the vast majority of wood pellets imported to the UK to be burned at power stations – predominantly Drax – come from the U.S. Southeast. Most of the pellet mills – which are owned mainly by Drax and U.S. producer Enviva – are located in environmental justice communities—poor, black communities like those where Rev. Woodberry lives.

These mills pollute communities' air with dust and hazardous air pollutants that make it hard to breathe or even go outside, and cause myriad diseases (e.g., cancer) and other health afflictions. The facilities routinely violate U.S. state and federal air quality standards. In fact, in 2021 Drax was fined $2.5 million for an air quality violation it had been committing for years and in 2022 it was fined $3.2 million. Sadly, such fines are a drop in the bucket compared to the almost £3 million a day the UK gifts Drax.

The pellet mills also strip surrounding communities of their forests.  The industry sources wood (including whole trees) from wetland forests—some of the most carbon-rich and biodiverse in the country to turn into pellets. They do not have to replant them, leaving communities barren and vulnerable to flooding from increasing storms caused by climate change. 

Community members living in areas impacted by Drax and other wood pellet operations have not been silent, despite political intimidation and few outlets to lend their voices.  And now Rev. Woodberry will visit the UK, in part, to continue the steady drumbeat of pressure on the UK government to stop their increasing reliance on a fake renewable that destroys forests and communities in the U.S. and other source countries. If you would like to speak to Rev. Woodberry while he’s in London, please email me or consider joining his prayer session.

February in the United States is Black History Month. It reminds Americans that our history is less uniformly equitable and honorable than once thought. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the American Southeast, where U.S. Black communities and other people of color are disproportionately exposed to the deleterious impacts of wood pellets—as well as other forms of environmental racism. That's why Reverend Leo is coming to the UK with a call to action: "Instead of harming vulnerable communities of color in the U.S., the U.K. should be rapidly shifting to secure, cheap, clean renewable energy like wind and solar.”

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