AHOSKIE, N.C. (August 27, 2013) – New maps and a report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Dogwood Alliance reveal the ecological threat a major wood pellet manufacturing mill in Ahoskie, North Carolina, poses to surrounding endangered forests. The facility, operated by the South’s largest exporter of wood pellets, Enviva, produces approximately 400,000 tons of wood pellets per year to ship to Europe as fuel for biomass electricity.
This mill relies on clearcutting some of the most diverse wetland forests in the world that have been reduced to a mere fragment of their original extent. Less than one percent of the forests surrounding the Ahoskie facility are protected from logging that would degrade native ecosystems, making remaining natural forests, and in particular wetland forests, vulnerable to wood pellet production. The four maps and the report show the facility not only threatens sensitive plants and animals within the 75-mile radius from which the mill buys trees for wood pellet manufacturing, but that it also contributes to the reduction and fragmentation of the hardwood forests in which these species thrive.
The collection of maps can be accessed online at: http://www.nrdc.org/energy/forestnotfuel/enviva-wood-pellets.asp.
“The data add to the growing body of scientific evidence documenting that large-scale biomass energy, and the wood pellet industry that fuels it, threaten the environment,” said Debbie Hammel, Senior Resource specialist with NRDC. “Natural hardwood forests are already disappearing across the region and Enviva’s Ahoskie facility could destroy the few sensitive forested wetlands remaining in the area. When these landscapes vanish, so do all the benefits they provide, such as critical habitat for wildlife, and water quality and flood protection for nearby communities.”
The first map in the series shows that the few remaining natural and seminatural forests surrounding the Ahoskie plant are highly fragmented. What was once an area full of diverse forest has now become dominated by pine plantations, which generally provide poor wildlife habitat compared to natural forests.
The second map identifies locations of wetland hardwood forests surrounding the wood pellet facility. A recent Wall Street Journal investigative news report found that Enviva has procured whole trees for the Ahoskie facility from clearcut wetland forests located within map area. Wetland forests play a vital role in maintaining biodiversity and providing ecological benefits to the region. Wetlands provide habitat for waterfowl, songbirds, black bear, and variety of reptiles and amphibians. Wetland forests are also beneficial to surrounding communities by improving water quality, providing flood control and buffering water flow during drought. In addition, these standing forests help moderate the earth’s climate by removing carbon from the atmosphere.
“Hardwood wetland forests play a vital role in maintaining biodiversity in this eco-region, and increased industrial logging in these forests can have significant, negative impacts,” says Dr. Alan Weakley, Director and Curator of the University of North Carolina Herbarium and one of several academic peer-reviewers of the maps. “Natural forests have been highly fragmented by conversion to pine plantations and they are important anchors for remaining biodiversity across this broad landscape.”
The third and fourth maps in the series differentiate between the increased presence of pine forests, mostly pine plantations, and the remaining natural forest types in the region, which consists principally of Upland Oak-Hickory, Bottomland Oak-Gum-Cypress and Bottomland Elm-Ash-Cottonwood.
“Having grown up romping around in these woods, I have witnessed first-hand the tragic disappearance and degradation of our majestic Southern wetland hardwood forests,” said Danna Smith, executive director of Dogwood Alliance. “The logging of Southern forests for fuel to generate electricity has exploded almost overnight with no regard for the region’s endangered ecosystems. We’re calling on Enviva, along with all other wood pellet manufacturers and European and domestic utilities, to stop using trees as fuel for electricity until adequate policies are in place to protect the climate and valuable ecosystems.”
Ahoskie is just one of dozens of wood pellet facilities operating in the U.S. South, which in 2012 emerged as the largest exporter of wood pellets in the world. Recent figures from market analysts project that annual exports of wood pellets will quadruple from 1.3 million tons in 2012 to nearly 6 million tons by 2015, driven by an ever increasing demand from European utilities such as Drax that are converting coal power plants to burn wood pellets in order to produce electricity. Virginia’s Dominion Resources, which also buys wood from Enviva, has among the largest investments in wood-generated power in the Southeast region. In total, the company is now poised to have a generation capacity of approximately 350 MW of electricity from burning wood with potential for more in the future.
Recent research shows that burning whole trees in power plants increases carbon emissions relative to fossil fuels for many decades – anywhere from 35 to 100 years or more. It also emits higher levels of multiple air pollutants. Despite these findings, burning whole trees is mistakenly characterized as a renewable energy source in the United States as well as the European Union.
NRDC and Dogwood Alliance point to several alternatives to burning whole trees for electricity. Wood residuals - such as tops and limbs - or sustainably grown agricultural materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill or burned represent better options for reducing carbon emissions, provided strict sustainability standards are adopted. And truly clean energy should be prioritized. Energy efficiency, solar, wind and geothermal are smarter cleaner energy resources that provide abundant economic opportunity.
Additional information about biomass and the wood pellet industry can be found at http://www.nrdc.org/energy/forestsnotfuel/default.asp.