Injustice in Northampton: what happens when a giant wood pellet factory moves into your backyard

Most of us will never know what it’s like to have a giant wood pellet factory move into our neighborhood. Unfortunately, the community of Northampton County, North Carolina isn’t so lucky. 

A new video, Injustice in Northampton, produced by our partners at the Dogwood Alliance for the Our Forests Aren’t Fuels campaign, shows what happened to residents when Enviva built a new wood pellet mill in their backyard.

Round-the-clock noise, sleepless nights, dangerous traffic, health concerns and unending dust mark the very real community impacts of the booming wood pellet industry in the Southeastern US. 

The region has become the world’s largest exporter of wood pellets. Most of these pellets are destined to be loaded onto ships, transported across the ocean, and burned in European power plants to make electricity—known as biomass energy—that power companies call “green”. 

With the help of organizations like Clean Water for North Carolina, the residents of Northampton have begun to document these impacts and organize to get the attention of state regulators. You can read more about their efforts here.

But even if we don’t live near a pellet mill, the environmental impacts of the biomass energy industry touch us all.

Far from the “green” energy touted by the industry, biomass can be a very dirty business. To churn out all those pellets, companies like Enviva source trees and other woody material from forests. You can see aerial footage of what that looks like at the start of the video. Not pretty. 

Burning trees to make electricity releases more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than burning fossil fuels like coal. It also threatens our forests’ ability to suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, one of the best tools we have in the first against climate change. It also threatens some of our most valuable and biologically diverse natural forests.

Our forests are the places where we hike, camp, hunt and fish with our families, not fuel for wood pellet manufacturers and power companies. We need to replace our coal fired power plants with energy efficiency and clean power, not dirty biomass. Electricity generated from short-rotation crops, wood waste and reclaimed wood, and timber harvest residues (tops and branches) has the potential to reduce carbon emissions. Together with investments in real clean energy like solar, wind and geothermal, these resources are the 21st century energy system we need to bring down emissions to levels that avoid the worst consequences of climate change. 

In 2014, we can do better than burning trees for energy. The health and safety of our communities depends on it.