More than 80 percent of Americans live in cities and suburbs—and this number is skyrocketing.

NRDC programs help create strong, just, and resilient communities—making cities healthier, more sustainable places to live. We work to lower energy bills, reduce flooding, improve access to healthier food, and make it cheaper and easier for everyone to get around. And when polluters threaten communities, our lawyers go to court on their behalf. 

Our Priorities

Protecting Communities

Low-income communities are disproportionately affected by health problems associated with fossil fuels.

Sustainable Cities

More than 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in and around cities.

Energy-Efficient Buildings

Buildings are the single-biggest source of carbon pollution in most U.S. cities.

Climate-Resilient Cities

Thanks to better efficiency standards, Los Angeles now uses only as much water it did in the 1970s.

Local Food Systems

A typical American meal contains ingredients from five foreign countries.

What's at Stake

What you can do

5 ways city dwellers can spur climate action

What is your city doing about climate change? Ask your local leaders these five questions.

How to tackle fracking in your community

Take recycling to the next level—at home, at work, and in your community

How to protect your community from crude oil "bomb trains"

7 ways to flood-proof your house

More sustainable (and beautiful) alternatives to a grass lawn

How to call Congress

Ways to make change globally by acting locally

A step-by-step guide to protecting your community from dirty development projects

Keep the KXL tar sands pipeline out of Nebraska

Urge your governor to lead on climate action

Tell Trump we won't stop fighting global climate change

Hurricane Harvey Hampers Mental Health Care
Juanita Constible

More than half of the 40 million American adults with a mental health condition don’t have access to care at the best of times. When you add the challenges of a disaster like Hurricane Harvey—flooded roads, closed hospitals, and unexpected water rescues—it’s likely some people will go weeks without their medication or other treatment.

Anyone can suffer symptoms of depression, anxiety, or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a major storm. Thousands of survivors of the epic 2016 floods in Louisiana still struggle with eating, sleeping, and making decisions a year later. People with symptoms before storms, however, are more vulnerable to worsening illness after floodwaters recede. For instance, surveys before and after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012 found older adults with pre-hurricane depression had higher rates of post-hurricane PTSD. Similar results were found after Sandy in first responders.

FEMA

The good news is that a sense of neighborhood trust and togetherness can help reduce disaster-related PTSD symptoms and related fall out. For example, nearly a quarter of Hurricane Katrina survivors in one study had difficulty getting enough food five years after the storm. People with mental health distress were 1.6 times more likely to report food insecurity, and those with PTSD were nearly 1.9 times more likely. High social support and a sense of community, however, helped protect the Katrina survivors from food insecurity—whether they had mental health issues or not.

That’s where local organizations come in. NRDC is proud to partner with groups like Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services and Bold Louisiana, who have local knowledge and expertise and are deeply connected to their communities. You can support neighbors helping neighbors here.

You can also be on the lookout for Hurricane Harvey’s mental health impacts among people who live far from flooded communities. Twelve years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, images of the ongoing disaster in Texas have been enough to intensify what some experts call “Katrina brain.” Hundreds of thousands of Katrina victims didn't return home to Louisiana or Mississippi after scattering across the country. No matter where you are, you could have someone in your life who is experiencing flashbacks.

Whether you have been directly impacted by Harvey or are just scared and anxious about what Harvey tells us about future climate-related disasters, it’s important to seek help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America of Greater Houston are great places to start. 

Hurricane Harvey: Another American Deluge
Rhea Suh

As we lend our immediate support to Gulf Coast communities, we must also protect people from such future disasters by addressing infrastructure, safety measures, flood policies, and climate change.

People in Houston are evacuated on rescue boats as floodwaters from Harvey rise, August 28, 2017.

David J. Phillip/AP

In just three days, more rain fell on the Texas Gulf Coast than what flows out of the Mississippi River in three full weeks. Tiny Cedar Bayou got 51.9 inches, the most ever measured for a single storm in the continental United States. Hundreds of thousands of people were washed out of their homes, and more than 32,000 huddled in makeshift shelters. In the words of the National Weather Service, “This event is unprecedented and all impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced.”

From left: Tammy Dominguez and her husband, Christopher Dominguez, at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center, where nearly 10,000 people are taking shelter after Harvey; evacuees fill Max Bowl, in Port Arthur, Texas.

From left: Michael Ciaglo/Houston Chronicle via AP; Kim Brent/The Beaumont Enterprise via AP

This is an American disaster. It demands an American response. We stand with the people of Houston and of the region—and with their need for national-level emergency aid and long-term recovery support. This support must be both effective and equitable and must reduce the prospect that this kind of suffering will be repeated, in Houston or anywhere else.

One thing we learned from Superstorm Sandy, five years ago this fall, and Hurricane Katrina before that, is that local communities are central to the success of any plan for emergency assistance, short-term aid, and long-range recovery. These groups with boots on the ground will need our support, and we encourage you to give it.

Because right now, they are the ones who remain in harm's way. A small ocean of water engulfs the Houston region, creating unimaginable damage and loss. Much of the water is laden with a toxic mix of chemicals seeping from area refineries, chemical plants, and abandoned industrial and waste sites. Strange smells sweeping through the area underscore reports of air pollution emissions from the refineries that dominate the region and explosions at one chemical plant. We don’t know how much has been released because air monitors have shut down, but press and local reports estimate the number in the millions of pounds of volatile organic compounds, like benzene, and other nasty chemicals. 

Flint Hills Resources oil refinery near downtown Houston on Tuesday, August 29, 2017

David J. Phillip/AP

Much of the water contains sewage from flooded municipal treatment plants. Public health officials are warning residents to stay out of the floodwaters. And there are drinking water concerns, too. Houston has been on a precautionary boil order, and there are fears that other drinking water systems could be compromised. 

Even after the storm has passed, the danger is unabated. 

And as people return to water-damaged homes, they face a high risk of living with mold, which can aggravate asthma, allergies, and other respiratory ills. After Katrina, Sandy, and other disasters, we saw communities blighted by these issues―along with contaminated sediments, debris left standing, and continued lack of services that threatened public health long after the floodwaters receded. Those are conditions that should not be repeated but will be hard to avoid after a disaster of this scale. Resources will have to be made available fast and without the rancorous debates that followed Superstorm Sandy. 

As we’ve seen in past disasters, low-income communities and people of color tend to suffer disproportionate exposure to these dangers, often without receiving adequate care. Proximity to the sources of the contaminants, lack of information, and poor access to protective measures or the resources to just up and leave until the dangers are gone all conspire to make the impacts even more burdensome to these communities. That’s why, again, the needs of these communities must be front and center in the days and weeks to come.           

Of the roughly 800,000 households in Houston, fewer than one in six has flood insurance. That means a lot of people won’t have money to repair or rebuild. Even those who do will find it extremely difficult to receive federal aid that might help them move to higher ground. Some 43,000 families were on the wait list for affordable housing in Houston. That list is likely to grow, as local housing costs rise in response to the lack of supply, and if communities don’t quickly move to replace lost housing for low-income residents, a recurring problem after a flood disaster.                    

Between 2005 and 2014, the federal government spent more than $278 billion on disaster rebuilding and recovery efforts―most commonly for floods, the nation’s most frequent and costly form of natural disaster.

To fix the problem, we put in place the Federal Flood Protection Standard in 2015, which requires better planning and protections for flood-prone infrastructure built with federal funds. Unfortunately, just as Harvey was beginning to stir in the Gulf of Mexico, President Trump rescinded those standards, part of what he called a “disgraceful” permitting process. It didn’t take long for Harvey to show the folly in that. Now it’s time for Congress to demand a more responsible approach.

There are a bevy of additional very big issues laid bare by this disaster. They will all need to be addressed once we have begun to get communities along the Gulf back on their feet.

We have to make our cities more sustainable to avoid some of the infrastructure issues that further complicated Harvey’s impacts on Houston. We have to address the safety risks associated with private facilities, like refineries and chemical plants, and their health impacts on neighboring communities. We have to fix this country’s flawed flood policies, and fast, to stop putting Americans in harm’s way. And most fundamentally, we have an obligation to protect current and future generations from the growing dangers of such disasters made worse by climate change. That’s what we’re committed to at NRDC, for the people of the Gulf and for us all.

Northeast Dispatch
After 40 Years, Will GE Get a Pass for Polluting the Housatonic River?
Under the Trump administration, the decades-long battle to get the company to clean up its PCB mess looks more uncertain than ever.

Housatonic River, Pittsfield, Massachusetts

JDW Foto/iStock

The Housatonic River is a favorite of New England fly-fishers, kayakers, and hikers. Flowing through the rolling hills of Berkshire County, Massachusetts, the river makes an idyllic backdrop to the region’s famous fall foliage. It meanders under covered bridges and through Connecticut, eventually emptying into the Long Island Sound.

“It’s heartbreaking to know that behind the scenes of that serene, beautiful natural world is a severely polluted system,” says Lauren Gaherty, a senior planner with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

The “WARNING” signs dotting the river’s banks in Berkshire County hint at the less-than-tranquil reality teeming below the surface: “HOUSATONIC RIVER FISH & WATERFOWL CONTAMINATED WITH PCBs. DO NOT EAT.”

Lorianne DiSabato/Flickr

First synthesized in the late 19th century, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are pervasive chemicals once used in hundreds of industrial applications, from plasticizing paint to insulating electrical equipment. General Electric was a major user of PCBs, including at its riverside plant in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, from the 1930s until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the production of the chemicals in the late 1970s. By then, GE had already discharged an estimated 600,000 pounds of PCBs into the Housatonic.

And this was wasn’t GE’s only instance of PCB contamination in a northeastern river. The company also dumped an estimated 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River, triggering a high-profile legal battle that NRDC has been involved with since the 1970s—and is still fighting today.

There’s good reason to fight so long and hard on the contamination. PCBs—all 200-plus types of them—are, to varying degrees, toxic to people and wildlife. “PCBs are just thoroughly horrible,” says Dan Raichel, an NRDC staff attorney. Multiple studies have proved the chemicals cause cancer in animals, and the EPA classifies them as probable human carcinogens. PCBs can also do significant harm to the immune and endocrine systems, affect reproduction, impair neurological development, elevate blood pressure, and cause skin rashes that can last for years. “It pretty much runs the gamut in terms of illness-causing,” Raichel says.

Now, nearly 40 years later, Berkshire communities, state governments, and environmental groups are still pushing GE to clean up its mess—a responsibility it has been avoiding. Decades may seem like a long time for contaminants to linger in a moving body of water. But PCBs were deliberately designed to persist under conditions that would cause other molecules to break down. “And persist,” Raichel says, “is exactly what they do in the environment.”

Stop Trump and Pruitt’s escalated anti-environment assault

PCBs bind to soil, sediment, and the fatty tissues of animals. From there they work their way up the food chain, starting with the small invertebrates that find their food in the riverbed and eventually accumulating in the bigger fish and waterbirds that eat them. People living near the former GE plant in Pittsfield can be exposed to PCBs when they come into direct contact with contaminated soil or river sediment, consume contaminated fish, or even eat crops grown in the Housatonic floodplain.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health warns against eating fish, frogs, turtles, or ducks from the river, and though the Housatonic is a popular recreational fishing destination, it’s strictly catch and release. “It’s a lost resource to people in Berkshire County,” Gaherty says. The state of Connecticut, too, regularly releases advisories on eating Housatonic fish.

But even if you’ve never supped from this river—or live nowhere near it—you almost certainly have PCBs in your body. Yes, you. To add to the list of their nightmarish qualities, certain PCBs can volatilize, or evaporate into the air, where they can be inhaled or spread by weather systems and fall back down to the ground in rain or snow. Wind and ocean currents have facilitated their long-distance travel around the world—not even denizens of the poles or the bottom of the Marianas Trench have escaped the reach of PCBs.

In short: Once PCBs enter the environment, it’s not easy to get them out.

GE, a $260 billion company, has used its considerable resources to argue that it shouldn’t get them out. “GE has been digging its heels in the whole way,” says Dennis Regan, the Berkshire director for the Housatonic Valley Association’s Water Protection division. And the company’s reasoning has shifted over the years. Originally, GE contradicted the prevailing science by claiming there was no evidence that PCBs are harmful to human health. As pressure from the EPA and affected towns grew, GE changed tactics, arguing that disturbing the river sediment in a cleanup effort would make the contamination worse.

In 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice, EPA, and GE managed to finalize a consent decree requiring GE to clean its PCBs from the Housatonic. Since then, the company has dredged the first two miles downstream of the Pittsfield plant, along with some other properties nearby, including an elementary school playground.

The GE Housatonic River site

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Slight progress is still progress, but 125 miles of contaminated river still remain. The EPA unveiled a $613 million plan last October that would span 13 years and require GE to dredge another 10 miles.

“These environmental battles can take a long time,” says Sarah Chasis, a senior attorney at NRDC who worked on the Hudson case against GE 40 years ago. And with only a partial cleanup effort for that river completed, the PCB levels in its fish are still not safe for human consumption. “It’s always an uphill fight to get companies to take responsibility for their pollution and to make real headway,” Chasis says.

And sure enough, GE is again pushing back against the EPA’s Housatonic plan. “This is their M.O.,” Gaherty says. “Delay and fight, delay and fight—they’re just hoping to wear everybody down so they can get away with a lesser cleanup.”

The latest point of contention is where the PCBs should go once removed from the river. Under the EPA’s plan, GE must take the contaminated soil out of state to a licensed toxic waste facility. GE, one of the richest companies in the world, argues that doing so would be too expensive and recently took its complaints to the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board, an independent panel of judges sometimes referred to as the agency’s “Supreme Court.” GE’s preferred solution is to create a local PCB dump in the towns of Lee and Lenox or Great Barrington, something the Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee—which represents the six most affected towns—is not happy about.

Complicating things further is Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator under President Trump. Because Pruitt has a history of siding with industry over public health, the future of the fight for the Housatonic’s remediation now looks more uncertain than ever.

Shortly before the Environmental Appeals Board hearing in June, the EPA circulated a memo saying it wanted to reopen negotiations with GE over the case. “Looks like Massachusetts is about to become Exhibit A in the Trump administration’s efforts to go easy on polluters,” Matt Pawa, an environmental lawyer representing the Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee, told the Boston Globe at the time.

Still, the hearing went forward as planned. “You don't put a hazardous waste site next to a river,” Pawa told the board. “You don't plunk it down in the middle of a community. People live there.”

And now, those people await the board’s decision.

Clara Chaisson
Northeast Dispatch

New Yorkers are resisting efforts to sextuple the number of anchorage grounds in the river and transform their backyard into a parking lot for oil barges.

onEarth Story

The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system brings precious water to three southern states. If only they could all get along.

onEarth Story

The EPA plans to rescind the Clean Water Rule, and the Senate gives Scott Pruitt a tongue-lashing.

Policy Primer

The incoming head of the EPA believes states should be in charge of their own environmental regulations. Been there, done that, got the oil-soaked T-shirt.

onEarth Story

Find a toxic waste dump near you! (And then don't go there.)

onEarth Story

The Los Angeles River—as faded and forgotten a Hollywood starlet as there ever was—could be poised for a comeback.

Western Dispatch

Local groups and government agencies are working together to remediate this Superfund site in the city’s midst, despite diminishing support from the EPA.

Our Public Lands and Waters Belong to You and Me
Rhea Suh

For the first time in America’s history, many of our national monuments are at risk for industrial exploitation. 

Alamy

Devils Tower National Park, Wyoming

Devils Tower

More than a century ago, some of the most important natural, cultural, and historic places in the United States were under threat. They were being destroyed by reckless looting, mining, logging, and other destructive acts. President Theodore Roosevelt responded with historic action, creating our first natural national monument to protect Devils Tower, the iconic volcanic outcrop in northeastern Wyoming. 

Since then, presidents from both parties have followed his lead. Together, they’ve set aside more than 100 special American places to be protected and preserved for all time as national monuments. They’re a vital part of our larger system of public waters and lands that together attract half a billion visits per year for recreation, reflection, and family gathers. They also contribute to an $887 billion–a–year outdoor recreation industry that supports 7.6 million jobs.

This natural legacy belongs to us all. From the awe-inspiring splendor of California’s giant sequoias to the majestic forests and mountains of Maine to the spectacular coral reefs off Hawaii, these monuments help to enshrine our common past. They honor the values that bind us as one and allow every American to experience the natural wonder of this richly blessed land much as the first Americans knew it.

Now, in a breathtaking betrayal of those unifying goals, President Trump has put many of these cherished monuments on the chopping block in a misguided effort to expose some of our most treasured lands and waters to more mining, drilling, and commercial development. 

It’s time to summon the spirit of conservation that Roosevelt championed and stand up for special American places. The Antiquities Act, which Roosevelt signed into law in 1906, empowers every president to designate special places for protection as monuments in the public interest. It does not entitle any president to look backward and strip away those protections already in place. Trump is the first to try to flout the law.

Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada

BLM

In an April executive order , Trump directed U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review the status of 27 national monuments created during the past 21 years, with an eye toward scaling back or eliminating monument protections for lands long coveted by industrial and commercial interests. Among the monuments on the list are Giant Sequoia of California;  the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, which is the so-called Grand Canyon of the Atlantic, off the New England coast; and the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii. Also in the crosshairs: Nevada’s Gold Butte, host to thousands of Native American petroglyphs and vital habitat for desert bighorn sheep, great horned owls, and other rare wildlife; Carrizo Plain, often called California’s Serengeti; and the Katahdin Woods and Waters of Maine.

Katahdin Woods and Waters, Maine

Edward Faulkner/Flickr

Past presidents designated these places only after years of analysis, public input, and review. They relied on exhaustive research, stakeholder engagement, and dialogue with business owners, farmers, ranchers, anglers, hunters, tour guides, and others. And they put in place professional plans that conserve and curate the habitat, wildlife, archaeological deposits, and sacred sites that make each monument a unique part of the national story we share. In turn, these preserved places have become economic engines. Studies show the growth of local economies surrounding national monuments after they’re designated, improving personal income levels and employments rates.

All that deserves to be respected, not swept aside as a handout to special interests. That’s the will of 98 percent of those Americans―2.7 million of them―who filed formal comments with Zinke’s office this summer in response to Trump’s order.

Paphanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Hawaii

Louiz Rocha

Zinke is due to make his recommendations by August 24. We don’t know what he’ll suggest because the review has been conducted the without transparency or logic. From the outset, it has been unclear which monuments were actually targeted, how the review was being conducted, whose voices would be heard, and what would drive Zinke’s decisions. He’s said he’ll make no changes to several national monument areas, including Hanford Reach in Washington State and Craters of the Moon in Idaho, citing Hanford’s value to anglers and hunters and Craters’ status as a testament to our geologic past. But he’s also indicated that other monuments might come under assault, already suggesting, for instance, that Trump should shrink Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, a wondrous expanse of red rock formations, sandstone canyons, and desert mesas that hosts more than 100,000 sacred and historic sites important to several Native American tribes.

Exposing our national treasures to the ravages of mining, commercial development, and drilling for oil and gas is a fool’s errand. It would put special American waters and lands in the hands of those who would dynamite, bulldoze, pave over, and drill irreplaceable sites that belong to us all. Industry would get the profit, special places would be destroyed, and we, the people of this nation, would be left the poorer.

These lands and waters don’t belong to the president, despite whatever he may believe.  They belong to the American people. The American story, in all its sprawling and rough-hewn majesty, is written on their landscapes. They remind us of what we share as a country, of who we are as a people, of what we value enough as Americans to protect and conserve. And we can’t—we won’t—let them slip away.

Tell your senators to save our national monuments

CA Chlorpyrifos Announcement Leaves Communities at Risk
Miriam Rotkin-Ellman

On Friday, California’s Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) made big promises to address the risk from the pesticide chlorpyrifos—found to threaten children’s health, especially in agricultural communities—but delivered little in the way of real protections. The state claimed to be announcing “health protections” but the reality is communities are unlikely to see improvements before January 2019, at the earliest. And, instead of showing California’s leadership in science and innovation, the state’s “updated” risk assessment ignores the findings from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2016 risk assessment—instead relying on data from back in 2014.

This means that state will allow way more contamination in California’s communities than the level US EPA determined is dangerous to children. US EPA’s 2016 assessment said that regularly breathing levels of chlorpyrifos higher than 2.1 ng/m3 was dangerous for pregnant women and no use of chlorpyrifos should be allowed that would result in these elevated exposures. The Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) wants to allow thousands of times more chlorpyrifos in the air—saying only levels above 61,500 ng/m3 are risky.

Chlorpyrifos (say “klor-PEER-a-foss”) damages the developing brains of children and has been shown to significantly increase the risk of learning disabilities. Yet the Trump administration refuses to finalize a ban that has been recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s own scientists. With the federal EPA making decisions that benefit chemical companies over children, California’s agricultural communities and farmworkers have been looking to Governor Brown to step-in and deliver the protections denied them by the new administration.

It’s especially critical here because California is the nation’s biggest user of chlorpyrifos (using on average a little more than 1 million pounds per year) leading to contaminated air, water, food and homes—putting the health of pregnant women, children, and farmworkers at risk. Unfortunately, California’s announcement falls far short of what’s necessary to protect people’s health. For one, despite having the authority to stop the drift of this pesticide into homes and schools, CalEPA is not setting mandatory restrictions which will get chlorpyrifos out of the fields for good.

Instead the promised “interim mitigation measures”, which are to be released next month, are actually “recommendations”—not requirements. That means there’s nothing legally changing whether or how chlorpyrifos is used in the fields—and the current, dangerous practice of applying it right next to homes and schools can continue. It will be left up to each County Agricultural Commissioner to voluntarily decide whether or not to follow any of the state’s new recommendations. That means we can expect patchwork improvements, at best, and there’s the distinct possibility that communities that need it most will get nothing.

Thankfully, Friday’s announcement includes additional scientific review outside the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR)—which is refusing to address the science that ties low-levels of exposure to chlorpyrifos to permanent damage to the developing brain. Based on this science, US EPA found that chlorpyrifos was contaminating the air in California’s communities and poisoning the food supply. In Friday’s memo, DPR erroneously states that USEPA’s assessment was a “draft” and not finalized. This is just one of a long list of DPR’s errors that the Scientific Review Panel (SRP) must correct to get California back on track.  However, for communities with unsafe air, the estimated completion date of the SRP review (which is optimistic) of December next year (2018) is a long time to wait.

CalEPA’s announcement shows that, at long last, California is paying attention (finally!) to residents concerned about this toxic pesticide—but they’ve responded with a false promise of protections for communities that pay a steep price for the fruits, vegetables and nuts Americans eat nationwide. “Recommendations” are not enough when the science supports a ban. CalEPA must make good on the promise of health protections by: (1) setting clear deadlines to keep the scientific review process on track, (2) protecting the most vulnerable—the risk assessment must evaluate risk to the developing brain, (3) providing near term relief to every community through mandatory restrictions and (4) banning chlorpyrifos from California’s fields.

California must do better than this. The health of its children depend on it.

Southeast Dispatch
This Tiny North Carolina Town Is Sick of Being a Dumping Ground for Pollution
The largely African-American community of Dobbins Heights hopes to protect its health—and its trees—from the biomass industry.
Concerned Citizens of Richmond County protest Enviva, which is planning to open a wood-pellet plant in Dobbin Heights, North Carolina.

Call to Action Media

Debra David lives with her two sisters, Mary and Betty, in their childhood home in Dobbins Heights, a North Carolina town of fewer than 850 people. Her family has been here for generations, and at 60 years old, David doesn’t plan on leaving—no matter how rough life gets in her neck of the woods.

Dobbins Heights may be small and rural, but it has become increasingly packed with polluting industries over her lifetime. Within five miles of the David home sits a CSX railroad station, a Duke Energy–Smith Energy complex, a Piedmont Natural Gas resource center, and thousands of chickens at a Perdue processing plant. On top of the unpleasant smells and loud noises emanating from the facilities (and their trucks, trains, and livestock), they spew diesel exhaust, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, carbon monoxide, and poultry dust into the air of this largely African-American community.

Debra David, a resident of Dobbin Heights and a breast cancer survivor, is concerned about yet another polluting industry coming into her town.

Call to Action Media

David, who belongs to a grassroots environmental justice group called the Concerned Citizens of Richmond County, says the town is struggling. With the median household income at $21,000, its residents are scraping by. According to the Richmond County Health Departmentdeaths from lower chronic respiratory diseases, such as emphysema and asthma, are higher at Dobbins Heights than in the rest of the state, and about twice as many people are hospitalized for asthma than in the surrounding counties. David is a breast cancer survivor, her sisters are both diabetic, and of their eight next-door neighbors, five either use inhalers or are on oxygen.

While many social, economic, and lifestyle factors contribute to illnesses, David and other residents can’t help but wonder how much the state of the community’s health can be blamed on the industries wooed there with property tax breaks and cash incentives to buoy the economy. And now, another polluter wants to come to town: a proposed biomass plant that would emit wood dust and other particulates, as well as strip their forests of trees. 

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) recently granted Enviva, the country’s largest exporter of wood pellets, an air-quality permit for the plant. It was the last hurdle for the energy giant before it could break ground in Dobbins Heights. 

But the community has had enough. With the help of the Southern Environmental Law Center, Dogwood Alliance, and other environmental groups, the Concerned Citizens of Richmond County are challenging the DEQ’s approval. Among other issues, the group says the community was not given the chance to voice their concerns about a possible new source of pollution in their backyard.

“There is a history of intimidation and oppression in the rural south,” says Emily Zucchino, the community network manager for Dogwood Alliance, a nonprofit focused on protecting southern forests. “In Richmond County, we see commissioners rolling out the red carpet for Enviva, while concerned citizens are silenced or ignored.”

The fight isn’t just shedding light on life in Dobbins Heights but also on the biomass industry itself. Touted as a clean energy alternative to fossil fuels, the industry began taking off about five years ago, and wood pellet production has been on the rise ever since. Most of the five million tons of wood pellets produced in 2015 (an almost 13 percent increase from the previous year) were exported across the Atlantic to help European countries meet their renewable energy mandates.

But, there’s a hitch. Though wood can be a renewable resource when forests are replanted, it’s not nearly as clean as, say, wind or solar. “The big problem is that people have treated biomass as if it’s carbon-free,” says Timothy Searchinger, a Princeton University researcher with a focus on bioenergy. “The thinking is, if you cut down a tree and a tree comes back, it’s free. But cutting down a tree for fuel is always worse than fossil fuels.”

Burning a tree releases the carbon it had been storing into the atmosphere, and it takes years for another such carbon bank to grow in its place. A recent study by Chatham House, a London-based think tank on sustainability issues, shows that biomass fuels increase carbon emissions for many decades to come compared to other polluting energy sources such as coal.

What does all this mean for Dobbins Heights? Fewer trees, more pollution, and more congestion. (The company would also invest $107 million into Richmond County and create 79 jobs, but according to Zucchino, those opportunities won’t necessarily go to locals.) If built, the plant would collect trees from within a 75-mile radius, and while Enviva says it relies on wood waste, such as tree trimmings and scraps from mills, a forestry consulting company named Forisk has shown otherwise. For example, Forisk calculates that the majority of the wood used at Enviva’s Ahoskie, North Carolina, mill comes from hardwood trees, including those typically found in wetland forests.

Enviva’s Ahoskie, North Carolina, wood pellet plant

Dogwood Alliance

NRDC and Dogwood Alliance are tracking the types of trees being delivered to Enviva’s Ahoskie and Sampson plants in eastern North Carolina. They’ve documented trucks, piled high with tree trunks, some cut from mature bottomland hardwood forests that provide critical habitat to many rare and imperiled species, according to NRDC scientist Sami Yassa. These forests contain bald cypress, swamp tupelo, and red ash trees (to name a few), which grow in streams and floodplains and provide natural flood protection. Unfortunately, these species are also slow to regenerate. 

Much of the timber harvested in the South comes from privately owned and largely unregulated land, says Debbie Hammel, a bioenergy and sustainable forest specialist at NRDC. So it’s hard to know what the industry is up to—and how it might be affecting fragile water systems or endangered and threatened species, such as the bald eagle, American black bear, and Rafinesque’s big-eared bat. “The Southeast is the wild west of forestry,” Hammel says.

Private landowners don’t necessarily benefit from the biomass industry, either. Jean Bryson, a tree farmer in Sampson County, the site of another Enviva plant (one of three others in the state), writes in a 2016 Clinton Chronicle (South Carolina) letter to the editor: “There are not that many hardwood forests left, and the ones that are replanted after cutting are replanted with pines. The pines do not grow enough to be cut again in 10 years.” Bryson also complained about the noise, sawdust, number of trucks, and increased traffic accidents that have come to the area.

Dobbins Heights faces a similar fate. “The reality is, if Enviva didn’t care in the past in places like Sampson County, where people can’t sleep, they’re not going to care now,” says Cary Rodgers, a pastor and the North Carolina environmental justice coordinator for Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.

And that’s just what David and her sisters worry about. “There’s going to be a lot more pollution coming to what we already have,” she says. “In a little town, all this pollution is just pushing us out the way.”

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