A Biomass Power Plant in Rural North Carolina Reignites Concerns Over Clean Energy and Environmental Justice

The plant has applied for a new operating permit. But residents and environmental advocates say pollution from the plant would increase the burden of an already environmentally stressed community.

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A power plant in North Carolina uses waste from poultry farms and wood chips to generate electricity. Credit: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

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A North Carolina power plant that generates electricity from poultry waste and wood chips has touched off a controversy over an operating permit that, if granted, would imperil public health and wellbeing, residents and environmental advocates in the surrounding community say. 

Since it started operating in Robeson County in 2015, North Carolina Renewable Power’s South Lumberton plant has repeatedly exceeded allowable emissions for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, known as PM2.5, and methane–a potent greenhouse gas. The violations have resulted in more than $58,000 in fines and a dozen non-compliance notices for failing to conduct timely emissions testing and faltering in monitoring and reporting of excess emissions, among other failures. 

Now the state Department of Environmental Quality has said that, given the higher emissions levels, the plant should be classified as a “major source” under the Clean Air Act, which would impose stricter rules and require the company to install the best available technology to lower its emissions rate. 

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In a public notice, the DEQ indicated that the plant’s application for a major source permit could be approved if certain conditions are met. The plant was temporarily shut down in November 2020, and NCRP said it will not restart until the new permit is granted. 

Environmental advocates say that allowing the poultry waste-burning power plant to operate in a community that is already environmentally challenged by pollution goes against state and federal government clean energy policies.

Katie Moore, a public health expert and resident, said during a public hearing that the DEQ held Feb. 21 by teleconference that the NCRP plant is operating in a county that is in the 80th percentile for fine particulate matter pollution and the 91st percentile for air toxics cancer risk in the state, according to Environmental Protection Agency figures. “This permit would make it worse,” Moore said. 

Amina Ghaffar, a resident with ancestral ties to the Indigenous Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, said that “Robeson County is tired of being an energy sacrifice zone.” The county is also considered one of the most economically distressed areas in the state, with the highest poverty rate statewide. Native Americans, Blacks and Hispanics make up a majority of county residents. 

Carey Davis, executive vice president of Georgia Renewable Power, said in a written statement the company must meet the Best Available Control Technology (BACT) requirements and associated emissions limitations upon issuance of the permit. “NCRP-Lumberton will not restart operations until the permit is issued and it upgrades the existing emissions control technology and conducts boiler maintenance to meet the BACT requirements in the permit,” Davis said.

In January, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order affirming the state’s commitment to a clean energy economy, and announced his plan to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, create good jobs and protect communities from pollution. Emphasizing the centrality of environmental justice and equity in transitioning to a clean economy, Cooper directed cabinet agencies to take environmental justice into account before taking action.

The governor’s order aligns with the Biden administration’s commitment to address systemic environmental injustice by investing in historically underserved communities. 

Advocates have repeatedly asked regulators to hold in-person town halls in addition to remotely-held meetings so that the residents of rural North Carolina can get proper information and share their opinions on issues that determine their health and quality of life. 

During the DEQ teleconference, some 40 people, including residents and advocates, pressed state officials to deny the North Carolina Renewable Power plant’s permit and to close it down permanently. One after another, the speakers pointed to the factors that resulted in a series of past violations, including a lack of regulatory oversight, incomplete analysis of the pollutants emitted by the facility and the disproportionate effect of plant emissions on adjacent communities. 

A spokesman for the North Carolina Division of Air Quality, Shawn Taylor, said in a written response, “The application and requested permit would bring the facility into compliance with state emissions regulations it was found to be exceeding.” He said the modified permit would allow NCRP increased emissions but also require the facility to comply with additional testing and emissions reporting. “The permit would also allow NCRP to retrofit its existing boilers and install new air pollution control equipment,” he said. 

North Carolina adopted a Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard or REPS in August 2007 that required investor-owned utilities in the state to acquire up to 12.5 percent of their energy mix through renewable resources or energy efficiency measures. Under the law, sources of renewable energy were defined as including biomass, such as agricultural waste, animal waste or wood waste, and methane from landfills. 

The NCRP plant sold electricity to Duke Energy, one of the largest utilities in the country, headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, to meet its renewable energy requirements. In 2018, 300,000 megawatt-hours of the total electric power sold by utility companies to customers in North Carolina was generated from poultry waste. 

Advocates said that the state’s backing of biomass and biogas as “renewable” energy has attracted large-scale capital investments in technologies that further entrench primitive waste management practices, without resolving the negative environmental and health effects associated with fossil fuels.

A growing body of research suggests that burning poultry waste releases significantly more toxic emissions than burning coal, including particulate matter, dioxins, bioaerosols, arsenic and other toxins linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory illness and other diseases.

Advocates Press State Regulators

The North Carolina Renewable Power plant was originally built as a 35-megawatt coal-fired power plant that ceased operations in 2009. It’s sited on a 13-acre industrial property in the heart of what’s known as the “American Broiler Belt,” which includes Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, North Carolina and Mississippi—the top five broiler producing states. North Carolina alone counts more than 5,700 farms raising more than 500 million chickens and turkeys a year.

In 2015, NCRP purchased the idled plant and retrofitted it to burn poultry waste and wood to produce biomass energy as a renewable recycling solution for the expanding poultry industry, which produces more litter than can be recycled as fertilizer. NCRP is a subsidiary of Georgia Renewable Power, which runs a similar power generation plant in Georgia.

The company estimated the plant would burn up to 285,000 tons of poultry waste and wood chips on a yearly basis. When it is in operation, the plant uses two boilers to generate steam to produce electricity and runs four belt dryers to reduce the moisture content of wood chips. Each belt dryer has the capacity to produce 100 tons an hour of wood chips.

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Under its current permit, called a “minor source” permit, the facility has a yearly emissions limit of 250 metric tons of pollutants including carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The plant is also allowed to emit almost 439,000 metric tons of greenhouse gasses and 1,224 tons of carbon monoxide a year, according to the North Carolina Division of Air Quality’s review of NCRP’s permit application, in addition to other toxic pollutants. 

Patrick Anderson, an attorney with the national nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), said the company initially acquired the “minor source” air permit, which has less stringent regulatory controls and requirements under the Clean Air Act, based on its claim that burning poultry waste and wood would lower emissions. “Turns out they were way wrong,” Anderson said. 

After numerous violations, state regulators in 2017 said the NCRP plant should be classified as a “major source” instead, a designation that imposes stricter requirements, including the installation of the best available technology to lower emissions. 

Anderson submitted detailed comments to the DEQ opposing the permit in a Feb. 24 letter, signed by 17 environmental groups. Among other things, the letter said that NCRP had omitted or downplayed the plant’s emissions levels of hazardous air pollutants or HAPs, chemicals known to cause cancer, respiratory and neurological problems, among other serious health impacts. 

In its permit application, the company listed two out of six of these hazardous air pollutants—methanol and formaldehyde—as present in emissions produced by the belt dryers in the plant, the environmental advocates noted in the letter. Research suggests that wood drying emits another four hazardous air pollutants namely acrolein, acetaldehyde, phenol and propionaldehyde, the letter added. 

The advocates also criticized the proposed permit as inadequate in its requirements for monitoring of hazardous emissions. For example, the advocates said, emissions monitoring for carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides under the permit is based on average levels registered over a 30-day period. 

“A 30-day rolling average is far too long,” the letter said, citing regulatory requirements under National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). The absence of shorter-term monitoring would mean that spikes in harmful emissions over hours or days that constitute violations might be overlooked, according to the letter. 

Cumulative Impacts Outweigh Benefits 

To make matters worse, advocates say, the NCRP plant is located on a recognized brownfield site, meaning one contaminated with hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants. As a previous coal-fired plant, the facility’s soil and groundwater are contaminated with coal ash and coal residue dumped on the site by the previous owner. There are some 450,000 brownfields in the United States.

A 2015 environmental assessment of the site found groundwater contamination from metals including arsenic, cobalt and vanadium. The assessment also detected chemicals known as total petroleum hydrocarbons and diesel range organics, as well as excessive levels of the VOC toluene in the soil samples tested for contaminants.  

Many of these chemicals have harmful effects. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), arsenic is known to affect the skin, the digestive system, the liver, the nervous system and the upper respiratory tract. Excessive cobalt exposure can lead to cardiovascular, developmental, upper respiratory and blood-related problems. And toluene exposure can have immunological and neurological effects. 

According to DEQ’s community mapping system, which tracks industrial and contaminated sites in North Carolina, there are 21 such sites within the one-mile radius of the NCRP plant. These include coal ash fills, solid waste landfills, a hazardous waste site, a couple of inactive hazardous sites and three plants that hold permits to release industrial emissions. Expand that to a two-mile radius, and the number balloons to about 100. 

The NCRP plant also sits in a 100-year floodplain, and areas of the site flooded during recent hurricanes. In the event of flooding, industrial materials stored on-site would further pollute groundwater, advocates say.

Robeson was ranked as the least healthy county in North Carolina in March 2020, according to the County Health Rankings Report. The county has a significantly higher rate of premature death compared to state and national rates. 

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has linked poor air quality to four leading causes of premature death, including cancers, heart disease, stroke and chronic lower respiratory diseases like emphysema, chronic bronchitis and asthma. 

A 2020 national study, by a researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Economic Research Service, found links between increases in livestock production and infant mortality. 

The study, published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, noted that “Previous research in North Carolina has found associations between living in proximity to industrial animal operations and wheezing in children, stress, negative mood, limiting of social activities, and other health-related outcomes.”

Neighboring counties to Robeson, like Montgomery County and Sampson County, had greater hospitalization rates for diabetes and cardiovascular disease than the state average. Sampson County, which has the second-highest density of hogs in the state, recorded a higher asthma hospitalization rate, according to the study.

Dr. Dana Powell, an associate professor of environmental anthropology at Appalachian State University, said that Robeson County has carried the burden of industrial development for decades, with no economic benefits and all of the environmental and social harms. She added that the county is an example of what the National Environmental Policy Act calls disproportionately impacted communities.

 “I’ve studied the coal fired power plants in the Southwest and we know that these dirty plants need to be decommissioned and dismantled rather than transitioned into even dirtier facilities in the name of renewable and green power,” Powell said, adding that this was not a good transition strategy.

For North Carolina’s environmental quality department to believe that it only needs to be concerned with the facility’s atmospheric emissions ignores indirect impacts and environmental justice, said Dr. Ryan Emanuel, an associate professor at Duke University. He said regulators must consider how much a facility degrades local air quality through activities such as diesel traffic to the site. “It highlights just one of the blind spots that regulators incur when they ask how far away from a stack might people experience harmful concentrations of pollutants,” Emanuel said.

By narrowly focusing on the emissions from the facility, he added, the department ignores the broader purpose of environmental justice policies, which seek to eliminate systemic inequities caused by polluting industries, like poultry production and associated waste management practices.

“DEQ cannot claim to adhere to principles of environmental justice if it continues to authorize activities that prop up the harmful status quo in Robeson and surrounding counties,” Emanuel said.

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