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Groups File Lawsuit to Protect Clean Air in NC County

Enviva is one of the largest producers of wood chips and pellets in the world, and plans to expand production in North Carolina. (Southern Environmental Law Center)
Enviva is one of the largest producers of wood chips and pellets in the world, and plans to expand production in North Carolina. (Southern Environmental Law Center)
February 21, 2019

HAMLET, N.C. – Clean Air Carolina is challenging an air quality permit for Enviva Hamlet, a large wood pellet manufacturing facility being built in Richmond County.

The environmental advocacy group says the state Department of Environmental Quality failed to ensure that an air pollution increase from the new plant won't violate the Clean Air Act.

The lawsuit alleges that DEQ underestimated the amount of air pollution the Hamlet plant would generate.

Daniel Parkhurst, policy manager for Clean Air Carolina, says the suit focuses on pollutants that contribute to smog and can cause breathing issues for older people, young children and those with lung diseases.

"On an average day, an adult will eat two to three pounds of food, drink four to five pounds of water and breathe 30 pounds of air,” he states. “So, what we breathe matters, and that's why we're really focused on this and the health of the surrounding community."

Richmond County already has one of the poorest health ratings in the state based on social and economic factors as well as the physical environment, according to a 2016 report of county health rankings.

Since construction is moving forward, Heather Hillaker, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, says the goal of the lawsuit is to require stricter pollution standards for the plant, particularly for volatile organic compounds or VOCs.

The pellet plant would produce 600,000 metric tons of pellets per year, according to Enviva.

Hillaker says the DEQ permit could include simple solutions, such as decreasing production.

"The new permit allows Enviva Hamlet to increase production by almost 100,000 tons per year,” she points out. “Using that increased production cap, they will exceed the threshold under the Clean Air Act.

“And so, one of the solutions would be for them to decrease the amount of wood pellets the facility can produce."

The DEQ approved the final permit by implementing what it calls "stricter testing requirements," but Parkhurst says the final permit has the same fundamental emissions flaws identified during the public-comment period.

"And while there were some positive changes that DEQ took from it and implemented into the permit, it simply is not enough to ensure the health of the surrounding community in the way that it's possible at Enviva Hamlet, and the same ways that they've done it at comparable sites across the state," he states.

The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard in mid-June.

Antionette Kerr, Public News Service - NC