George County

Will a large pellet plant in Lucedale affect the Mississippi Coast’s air quality?

Lucedale pellet plant: Locals say yes, environmentalists say ‘hold on’

A public hearing for a permit to allow a company to build the largest wood pellet plant in the world in George County Mississippi. Many locals say it will bring jobs. Others worry it will bring environmental and health issues.
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A public hearing for a permit to allow a company to build the largest wood pellet plant in the world in George County Mississippi. Many locals say it will bring jobs. Others worry it will bring environmental and health issues.

It’s been promoted as an economic victory by Gov. Phil Bryant, and labeled an environmental threat by the actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

On Tuesday, a state air quality permit board is scheduled to decide if the largest wood pellet plant in the world can move toward construction in the southern Mississippi town of Lucedale.

Proposed by the Maryland-based company Enviva, the $140 million plant would take local timber and grind it into pellets, which would then be shipped to Europe and Japan to be burned for energy. The company plans to build an associated $60 million Pascagoula port terminal.

State and local leaders call the facility an economic boon, and have promised millions of dollars in incentives and tax breaks to Enviva. Officials say the projects will employ 120 people and reinvigorate a stagnant logging industry in the southeast corner of the state.

“The pellet mill will be one of the greatest things that’s happened to George County in my lifetime,” George County Supervisor Henry Cochran told the Clarion Ledger.

But groups including the Environmental Integrity Project and the NAACP have raised a slew of concerns. Chief among them is the facility’s impact on air quality, which the Mississippi Environmental Quality Permit Board is expected to study Tuesday. The groups point to similar pellet mills around the Southeast that have faced repeated dirty air and dust complaints from residents and businesses — including Enviva’s existing Mississippi plant in Amory.

Modeling conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project found the Lucedale plant’s emissions would push several air pollutants into unsafe territory, under federal Clean Air Act standards.

“(T)he plant will emit air toxics at levels that present unacceptable threats to human health,” the Environmental Integrity Project wrote in a letter to the state. Enviva officials claim the group’s modeling isn’t accurate.

“From our perspective, if they want to build this plant, and they want to comply with the Clean Air Act, they’re going to have to go back to the drawing board and redesign some things,” Patrick Anderson, an attorney with the group, said of Enviva.

A central concern of environmental groups with the Lucedale facility is its emissions during pellet-making. The process involves compressing and heat-drying wood dust.

The Environmental Integrity Project modeling found the plant’s small particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions would cause Clean Air Act violations, especially during “bypass operations” — when certain pollution-controlling equipment would be allowed to be switched off. Such air contaminants can contribute to heart and lung disease.

The group also raised concerns about “fugitive” wood dust escaping into nearby neighborhoods. It said the initial draft permit did not include enough requirements to control dust — a cause of frequent complaints at other pellet facilities in the region.

Enviva’s Amory plant has consistently garnered complaints from local residents and business owners due to the dust and smoke it emits, the Clarion Ledger found. It has received two notices of violation from state environmental regulators, last year and in 2017.

A Monroe Journal article from 2016 described a “funnel cloud of dust over the plant that can be unsettling when reaching into another cloud above,” and an alderman reported residents of his ward “wheezing, coughing and constantly washing the dust off their vehicles.”

Similar air quality concerns arose at an Enviva facility in North Carolina, where the company recently settled a legal complaint by agreeing to add more pollution controls.

Dust and pollution complaints have also come from pellet manufacturing facilities owned by a different company in the southwestern Mississippi town of Gloster, and at a facility in Louisiana, according to news reports and documents submitted to state environmental regulators.

The Environmental Quality Permit Board is scheduled to consider an air permit for Enviva’s plant during its upcoming meeting, 9 a.m. Tuesday at 515 E. Amite St. in Jackson.

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