In the final weeks of July, a handful of residents in Gloster, a low-income, majority-black community in southwest Mississippi, prepared to meet with the Drax Group, a British energy company that operates a wood pellet manufacturing plant in the small town.
They planned to provide the company with a list of demands to address their concerns about the plant’s industrial pollution. Priority items on the list include installing air quality monitors within a quarter mile of the facility and requiring the facility to cease operation during night hours in accordance with Gloster’s noise regulations.
But the meeting scheduled for June 2022 was canceled by the company.
“We didn’t really expect them to answer our questions anyway,” said Krystal Martin, a Gloster native and community leader. “We just want to see action from Drax.”
In an email statement to NBC News, Drax North America director of communications Alex Schott said the meeting was canceled due to “an unexpected scheduling conflict.”
The canceled meeting is the latest in a years-long struggle between local activists and Drax. Since the facility opened in 2016, local residents have complained about deteriorating air quality and health conditions, and the state environmental agency has twice issued notices to Drax for violating air pollution regulations.
The Company’s Gloster facility is one of many such facilities in the world american south, This is the world center for the production of wood pellets. Wood pellets have been adopted by European countries in recent years as part of the move towards ‘biomass’ or ‘biofuels’ as an alternative to fossil fuels, accelerated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Biomass fuels such as wood pellets are widely recognized as renewable and carbon neutral energy sources, especially in the European Union where wood pellets are mainly used to generate electricity and are even included in the EU’s 2030 renewable energy targets. In 2022, Drax will also receive about $2.2 million a day in UK government subsidies for clean energy production. according to Sky News.
In recent years, the biomass industry increasingly come into focus. Many environmental groups argue that wood pellets are uniform worse than fossil fuels in terms of release of carbon emissions.
Schott said sustainable biomass releases less carbon than alternative fuels, but a report from the Rachel Carson Council, an environmental non-profit, found that burning wood pellets emits 65% more CO2 than coal, widely considered the dirtiest energy source.
Still, the wood pellet industry enjoys a reputation for sustainability, said Robert Musil, president and CEO of the Rachel Carson Council. Musil said the status was being inflated by Drax’s efforts to market itself as a climate solution.
“They claim to be the good guys, but the industry is one of the most polluting and damaging to the environment and communities,” Musil said.
Drax first announced his plans to build his Gloster facility in 2013 has promoted the project as a way to bring jobs to an area with poor economic prospects. Drax said in an email that 70 permanent jobs have been created at the Gloster site and that 82% of wages go to employees living in rural Mississippi communities. Martin said few locals got jobs at the plant.
The situation has also drawn the attention of environmental justice advocates, who say Gloster is another example of air pollution disproportionately affecting communities of color. In September, Katherine Egland, a member of the NAACP’s board of directors, said: said Greenpeace that the plant and its government subsidies perpetuate “environmental racism” because Gloster is a majority black community. Drax told Greenpeace that community safety is the top priority.
Gloster, which had a median income under $15,000 as of 2021 and has fewer than 900 residents, has no local school and only a small medical clinic with no senior physicians. Most citizens regularly travel outside the city limits to receive medical care.
At the Drax plant, wood pellets are made by processing wood into wood chips, drying the chips and then grinding them into a fine powder that is formed into pellets. In doing so, Drax releases a number of pollutants.
Drax’s recent permit applications, filed with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and reviewed by NBC News, say the facility emits several hazardous air pollutants, a group of chemicals that the federal government regulates for their potential cause cancer and other serious health problemsas well as volatile organic compounds, a group of pollutants that includes substances that can cause Liver, kidney and central nervous system damage.
Such emissions are legal in certain amounts, provided companies operating industrial plants receive government approval. Drax is currently licensed to operate as a minor polluter of hazardous air pollutants and volatile organic compounds, which allows the Company’s facility to emit less than 25 tonnes of hazardous air pollutants and 249 tonnes of volatile organic compounds per year.
It’s these emissions that have been the target of local activists, environmental groups and government regulators. In 2020 the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality fined Drax $2.5 million for violating the annual limits of its permit for volatile organic compounds. Drax said the company has taken appropriate steps to comply with VOC limits.
Outside of Mississippi, Drax agreed to a $3.2 million state fine in Louisiana just last year for air pollution violations, although no wrongdoing has been admitted.
In March, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality issued a notice of violation to Drax, stating that its facility had exceeded air pollution limits for emissions from the facility. The notice alleges that Drax has been operating without a permit as a “main polluter” since April 2022, emitting more than 25 tonnes of hazardous air pollutants annually.
Schott, head of communications at Drax North America, said the company is working with environmental consultants to help comply with the regulations.
“Drax is committed to environmental compliance and remains focused on transparency and open communication with the Environmental Protection Agency, MDEQ and the community,” Schott said in an email.
The March report to Drax of the violation was merely an allegation, Chris Wells, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, said in a telephone interview.
“It was and is an open case,” he said. “The allegations against Drax have not yet been decided.”
The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality’s next step after issuing the notice and receiving a response is to reach an amicable settlement with the company about the violations and then ultimately determine the appropriate penalty.
If no agreement is reached, the department escalates the matter to the Mississippi Commission on Environmental Quality. In general, repeat violations mean higher penalties that can even affect a facility’s license renewal, Wells said.
Patrick Anderson, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project who has been monitoring Drax’s emissions since 2017, is skeptical of Drax’s commitment to environmental standards.
“What I’ve seen time and again at Drax and many other biomass companies is just a complete disregard for environmental compliance,” he said. “To the extent that they claim to be eco-friendly or care about environmental issues, they don’t. And they absolutely do not back that up with their actions.”
Local residents who spoke to NBC News say the effects of alleged air pollution from Drax have been felt since the company first opened the Gloster facility.
“When you go outside, you can tell there’s a difference in the air,” said Jimmy Brown, a lifelong Gloster resident who always wears a face mask when he goes outside. “You can smell it and feel your eyes sting, your nose sting — and imagine breathing that in for almost eight years without anyone telling you what’s going on.”
“When you step outside, you realize there’s a difference in the air.”
Jimmy Brown, lifelong resident of Gloster
Wells said the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality will alert the public to anything that may pose an imminent threat to their health. “Breaking a permit doesn’t trigger the same need because it doesn’t necessarily have negative health implications,” he said.
The dissatisfaction of local residents, activists and environmental groups extends beyond Drax to state and federal regulators. Much of the local frustration stems from a community meeting on May 9, where more than 200 Gloster residents gathered to voice their concerns about Drax to several officials from the EPA and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.
Martin said the local community was unaware of the March announcement at the time of the meeting and that not a single official mentioned it. The notice came to light after the meeting, after Anderson filed a Freedom of Information Act record-keeping request.
This lack of transparency has fueled anger and resentment in the community, she said.
Adam Colette, director of programs at Dogwood Alliance, an environmental nonprofit that has worked with the Gloster community since 2019, said responses from state agencies have been “inadequate”.
At the federal level, the EPA is monitoring the situation. In a statement to NBC News, EPA Regional Office 4, which serves Mississippi, said primary enforcement rests with the state, although the agency routinely evaluates state enforcement programs and may deal with individual cases. The EPA declined to comment on its plans in the current case.
Gloster citizens like Martin hope their joining will bring about change in the small town – and they are already planning their next meeting with Drax.
“Some communities don’t need to worry about the air they breathe,” she said. “But we do. And clean air should always be free. We should all have the right to breathe free, clean air.”