Photographs by Will Lanzoni, CNN
Video by Matthew Gannon, Demetrius Pipkin & Nick Scott, CNN
Published July 9, 2021
Andrea Macklin never turns off his TV. It’s the only way to drown out the noise from the wood mill bordering his backyard, the jackhammer sound of the plant piercing his walls and windows. The 18-wheelers carrying logs rumble by less than 100 feet from his house, all day and night, shaking it as if an earthquake has taken over this tranquil corner of North Carolina. He’s been wearing masks since long before the coronavirus pandemic, just to keep the dust out of his lungs.
Some nights, he only sleeps for two or three hours. Breathing is a chore.
“I haven’t had proper rest since they’ve been here,” he said.
That was eight years ago, when the world’s largest biomass producer, Enviva, opened its second North Carolina facility just west of Macklin’s property in Garysburg. The operation takes mostly hardwood trees and spits out biomass, or wood pellets, a highly processed and compressed wood product burned to generate energy. Enviva is one of nearly a dozen similar companies benefiting from a sustainability commitment made 4,000 miles away, more than a decade ago.
In 2009, the European Union (EU) pledged to curb greenhouse gas emissions, urging its member states to shift from fossil fuels to renewables. In its Renewable Energy Directive (RED), the EU classified biomass as a renewable energy source — on par with wind and solar power. As a result, the directive prompted state governments to incentivize energy providers to burn biomass instead of coal — and drove up demand for wood.
So much so that the American South emerged as Europe’s primary source of biomass imports.
Earlier this year, the EU was celebrated in headlines across the world when renewable energy surpassed the use of fossil fuels on the continent for the first time in history.
But scientists and experts say it’s too early to celebrate, arguing that relying on biomass for energy has a punishing impact not only on the environment, but also on marginalized communities — perpetuating decades of environmental racism in predominantly Black communities like Northampton County, where Macklin and his family have lived for generations.
Macklin’s elderly aunt lives right behind him, a tall Magnolia tree provides shade to both their homes. His mother’s house is just down the street. They used to have large family cookouts in his garden while the kids played on the lawn, but they haven’t done that in years. Between the noise and the sawdust from the plant, his home is no longer a safe place to gather.
But it’s the pollution that worries him most.
“You don’t know what’s coming out of the smokestack,” said Macklin. “That’s my main concern.”
To say cutting down trees and burning them for power is a renewable energy source feels counterintuitive and, in reality, it is.
Burning wood is less efficient than burning coal and releases far more carbon into the atmosphere, according to almost 800 scientists who wrote a 2018 letter to the European parliament, pushing members to amend the current directive “to avoid expansive harm to the world’s forests and the acceleration of climate change.” President Joe Biden and other world leaders received a similar letter from hundreds of climate scientists earlier this year.
The EU directive that encouraged the pivot to biomass also left a loophole — it did not prevent the leveling of rooted trees for wood pellet production.
“I can’t think of anything that harms nature more than cutting down trees and burning them,” said William Moomaw, professor emeritus of international environmental policy at Tufts University.
Yet by burning wood, European power plants can reduce their carbon footprint — at least on paper.
In 1996, scientists at the United Nations devised a method to measure global carbon emissions. To simplify the process and avoid double counting, they suggested emissions from burning biomass should be calculated where the trees are cut down, not where the wood pellets are burned.
The EU adopted this methodology in its Renewable Energy Directive, allowing energy companies to burn biomass produced in the US without having to report the emissions.
The accounting method — which was never intended to assign national responsibility for carbon emissions, according to climate experts — has created a lot of discussion and disagreement among advocates, scientists and policymakers. But ultimately it is not the accounting of carbon that is the problem, it’s the emissions.
“It doesn’t change the physical reality,” said Tim Searchinger, senior research scholar at Princeton University. “A law designed to reduce emissions that in reality encourages an increase in emissions … has to be flawed,” he said, referring to Europe’s directive.
Ultimately, Europe is not reducing emissions by burning American trees — it’s just outsourcing them to the United States.
“The idea was to curb our addiction to fossil fuels,” said Bas Eickhout, Dutch politician and member of the European Parliament. Biomass was an attractive option for EU countries at the time, he explained, because it was much cheaper than solar or wind power and could be “mixed in” when burning coal.
However, European decision-makers didn’t fully consider the repercussions of importing biomass, Eickhout said, adding they “were too naïve.”
“The production of biomass has become an industrial process which means something has gone fundamentally wrong,” he said. “The professionalization of the biomass industry is a problem that needs attention.”
The directive led to troubling consequences across the Atlantic. By failing to restrict biomass to the byproduct from manufacturing paper, furniture or lumber, Europe created a strong incentive to cut down whole trees and turn them into wood pellets.
Encouraged by government subsidies, European power plants began importing biomass from the largest wood producing region in the world: the American Southeast.
North Carolina has been “ground zero” for the wood pellet industry, said Danna Smith, co-founder and executive director of the environmental advocacy group Dogwood Alliance. One hundred and sixty-four acres of the state’s forests are cut down by the biomass industry every day, according to an analysis by Key-Log Economics.
US-based Enviva, which owns four wood pellet plants in North Carolina, says their product is fighting climate change.
“When sourced responsibly wood-based biomass is recognized by the leading international organizations and scientists as climate friendly, renewable and carbon-neutral energy source,” Enviva wrote in a statement, adding that they require the forests they source from ”will regenerate, either naturally or through planting.”
Yet, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the UN body that came up with the carbon accounting methodology — states its guidelines “do not automatically consider or assume biomass used for energy as ‘carbon neutral,’ even in cases where the biomass is thought to be produced sustainably.”
And, North Carolina’s Clean Energy Plan notes that biomass “does not advance (the state’s) clean energy economy.” The plan goes on to acknowledge that most of the wood pellets produced in the state are exported to Europe, and even that “the science regarding carbon neutrality and accounting methods are contentious issues.”
Biomass is renewable only in the sense that trees can grow back, said Grant Domke, who leads a team researching and reporting on carbon stocks and changes on forest land at the US Forest Service. “But that is different than it being carbon-neutral.” When it comes to Europe reducing carbon emissions by burning American biomass, “the math doesn’t add up.”
Still, the biomass industry is not showing any signs of slowing down. Drax, a British company that operates the largest UK power plant, has acquired several wood pellet plants in the American South and is developing others. Enviva, too, is building new facilities and is expanding existing ones — including the plant in Northampton County, North Carolina, where Macklin and his family live.
It’s here where once grand country homes stand dilapidated, overrun with weeds and abandoned in a jigsaw puzzle of cotton, grain and sprawling pine plantations. Strip malls, restaurant chains and expansive parking lots comprise the commercial landscape. Gas stations line the roads but grocery stores are few and far between. The temperature was already scorching in May — residents kept their curtains drawn and many stayed inside, the hum of air conditioning providing the only sign of life.
For the last decade, the population in Northampton County has been declining and, despite a clear need for health care, there was only one primary care physician serving the entire county, with a population of just under 20,000, in 2018.
Sources: US Census 2019 5-year American Community Survey, North Carolina Dept. of Environmental Quality
Sources: US Census 2019 5-year American Community Survey, North Carolina Dept. of Environmental Quality
Sources: US Census 2019 5-year American Community Survey, North Carolina Dept. of Environmental Quality
That same year, a health assessment by the county health department asked residents if they had ever been diagnosed with certain ailments. The report showed more than 60% of the participants said they had high blood pressure, more than half said they were overweight and over 20% said they suffered from depression or diabetes. Nearly 11% of residents said they had heart disease.
The latest data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that more than one in 10 adults in Northampton had asthma in 2018. Asthma hospitalizations in the county, however, are lower than in the state as a whole, according to the NC Department of Environmental Quality.
Macklin, a father of two and lifelong Northampton resident, is living these statistics. Two years ago, the 44-year-old’s heart condition worsened, requiring him to quit his job at a meat packaging plant and leaving him with a disability, like more than 16% of county residents under 65.
Macklin’s wife and 21-year-old son both suffer from asthma, a condition that Macklin said is exacerbated by the pollution and dust coming from Enviva’s plant behind his house. Since the plant started operating, he said, his wife and son can’t spend more than five minutes outside without coughing.
Before Enviva opened its Northampton mill, the 551 square miles that make up the county were already home to three major air pollution sources — facilities required to a request a permit under Title V of the Clean Air Act for emitting large amounts of air pollutants. Another three such facilities are located within two miles of the Northampton border in neighboring Halifax County.
In 2013, Enviva became the fourth Title V permit holder in Northampton County, emitting tons of dangerous fine particles, or PM2.5, carbon monoxide and a number of what the Environmental Protection Agency calls “Hazardous Air Pollutants” — including formaldehyde and methanol.
“All of our plants operate in compliance with their permits and federal and state prescribed emission legal standards under the permits, presenting no risk or issue to public health or environment,” Enviva said in a statement, adding that a state air quality monitor five miles from its facility found that PM2.5 levels did not “present a health risk” to county residents.
Yet federal standards for fine particulate matter are too high and do not protect public health, according to twenty scientists who served on an EPA panel on particulate matter in 2018 and urged the administration to impose tougher pollution standards.
The EPA did not take action at the time but announced last month it is taking another look at the federal standards for PM2.5 saying “scientific evidence and technical information indicate that the current standards may not be adequate to protect public health and welfare, as required by the Clean Air Act.”
Exposure to year-round PM2.5 pollution — particles at least 20 times thinner than a strand of human hair — has been linked to asthma and slowed lung function in children and increased risk of cancer, heart attacks, strokes and death from cardiovascular disease, according to the EPA. The health problems in Macklin’s community have not been directly linked to the Title V facilities in the county.
The population of Northampton — which, according to CNN’s analysis, has one of the highest numbers of major air polluters per capita in the state — is predominantly Black, underscoring long-standing concerns over environmental racism.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, the agency tasked with granting air quality permits in the state, declined to comment for this story.
“We’ve been disrespected all our lives,” said resident Belinda Joyner, 68, who has been fighting environmental racism in her community for decades, “and we’re still being disrespected.”
PM2.5 polluters in the United States “disproportionately and systemically affect people of color,” according to a recent study that noted this type of exposure is responsible for up to 200,000 excess deaths in the United States every year.
When there is “degradation of the air and the land, we simultaneously see degradation of the community,” said Smith, of the Dogwood Alliance.
All but one of Enviva’s nine operating plants in the country are located in communities that have higher percentage of Black residents than their states as a whole, according to a CNN analysis of census tract data from the American Community Survey. The only exception was the company’s plant in southeast Georgia.
In addition, all of Enviva’s plants are in census tracts that have lower median household incomes than their states, and eight of the nine — all except the one in southern Virginia — are in tracts with higher poverty rates than their states as a whole.
To some, like Macklin, Enviva’s presence has hardly benefitted the community.
“They just feel like they come in and do what they want to do,” said Macklin, adding later, “All the noise and the dust and stuff, it was never like that, it’s always been quiet around here … that plant is on 24 hours a day. It don’t stop. Seven days a week.”
Kathy Claiborne, 59, who lives on the other side of the Enviva plant in Northampton, anticipates the sleepless nights by trying to take a nap when she gets home from work. The noise is worst around 2 a.m., she said.
“I never really thought about noise as being a health hazard until I talked to the communities that live next to the Enviva facilities and they say they can’t sleep at night,” said Smith. “Not being able to sleep is depriving people of one of the most important foundations of human health.”
In its response to CNN, Enviva said the company takes “environmental justice concerns raised with respect to our operations very seriously. And, we work closely in our communities and community leaders to ensure our operations bring both positive economic and environmental impact.” The company also said it had not received noise complaints other than “generic complaints” at a recent hearing raised by “the same activists we’ve heard from before.”
Enviva pointed to an environmental justice analysis for its operations in Northampton done by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, claiming the report ensures “there is no negative impact on disadvantaged or minority communities from out plants or operations.”
However, the 2019 Environmental Justice Impact Statement merely describes the demographics around the plant — noting high disability and poverty rates in a majority Black population — it does not give recommendations or reach conclusions about the impact the industry would have on the community.
Still, in June, the county Chamber of Commerce awarded Enviva with the “Corporate Business of the Year” award — noting the company “continuously supported, donated, and invested their time and talents into local organizations and causes.”
Though the relationship between local officials and Enviva is “good now,” inviting them in had drawbacks, said Franklin Williams, the county’s economic development director. The company wants to be “good partners,” he said, applauding its outreach efforts and noting that Enviva has provided school supplies to local schools and helped sponsor food banks in the community during the pandemic.
Joyner and the Claibornes recalled a Christmas when Enviva sent some residents hams — but the outreach felt almost insulting.
“The next thing you know that plant is up and running and we’re getting a ham,” said Claiborne’s husband, Earl. “It was a good gesture but you know you’re getting pulled into something.”
To Joyner, school supplies and holiday meals do little to counter the impacts Enviva’s operation has had on the people of Northampton. This is where her mother bought the land that her house sits on — it’s where she raised her two daughters.
“All I want to do is take care of it,” she said. “I don’t have the privilege to get up and move. Where am I going? This is home.”
Just across the border in Virginia — less than an hour from Joyner’s house — sits a rare, protected ancient wetland forest.
“We’re looking at trees around us that are over a thousand years old,” said Smith, as she maneuvered her kayak through the Cypress trees, pointing out different species and identifying birds whose habitats are threatened by industrial logging. It’s an “incredible jewel of an ecosystem,” she said.
It’s a humbling place, in stark contrast with the hot and dusty clear-cuts — land where trees have been leveled and not replaced — and rows of newly planted pine trees that make up Macklin and Joyner’s neighborhood.
Cypress trees, some with trunks wider than a sedan, stand tall between lily pads and beaver dams. In the winter, the water rises and hides those massive, cracked and often hollow tree trunks that are visible in the warmer months. Noise from the nearby highway is drowned out by an orchestra of birds. Fish jump out of the water as if in an animated film. It’s peaceful, green and surprisingly cool on an otherwise sweltering summer day.
The 535-acre forest — surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of pine plantations and clear-cuts — is a precious needle in a haystack.
“The forestry industry and the wood pellet industry says that trees are renewable,” said Smith, but “we aren’t renewing thousand-year-old ecosystems. They’re renewing forests for commercial production. So you’ll see trees on the landscape that are maybe, you know, 30 years old. That’s not an ecosystem — that’s a fiber farm.”
As long as trees are replanted, Enviva and supporters of the biomass industry argue, burning them can be considered renewable energy. But the reality is not so simple.
When trees are cut down and burned, all the carbon they stored is immediately emitted into the air, Moomaw, the professor at Tufts University, explained. For a new tree to grow and re-absorb the same amount of carbon takes decades — making the worldwide attempts at going carbon neutral on deadline, like the EU wants to by 2050, a daunting goal.
At best, planting a seedling for every downed tree keeps carbon emissions neutral over time — it’s not removing any more carbon out of the atmosphere, Moomaw stressed.
“It’s preventing us from getting worse, but it’s not making it better,” he said.
Or, as Smith put it ominously, “we’re losing decades of time every time forests are clear cut — time we don’t have.”
Traveling back to Northampton from the protected Cypress wetlands, Smith points out clear cuts along the way. A 50-acre plot of decades-old trees cleared in the fall still bore the smell of pine — serving a jarring image less than an hour from the lush wetland forest to the east.
Enviva received 15% of those once living, standing trees — deemed “lower-value wood” by the biomass industry because it doesn’t meet the specifications for lumber.
“This is our nation’s sacrifice zone for unsustainable consumption of wood products and products we don’t need,” Smith said. “These wood pellets aren’t even producing electricity here … this is completely unnecessary.”
Thomas Garner has been logging — cutting down trees and loading them onto trucks — since he was 16 years old. He remembers pulling logs onto his back and loading the trucks by hand. Big machines — aptly called log loaders — have made his work much easier, but even at 83 he drives fully stocked 18-wheelers to wood and paper mills all over Northampton County and beyond.
Enviva has been good for his business as an independent contractor, he said, a sentiment echoed by others who spoke to CNN.
But the jobs come at a hefty price for Northampton County.
Local officials eager to pull Northampton out of its Tier One status — a designation by the state for its 40 lowest ranking counties in terms of economic well-being — lured companies, including Enviva, to the area with financial incentives. But these incentives actually set Northampton back, said Williams, the current Director of Economic Development in the county.
In Enviva’s case, among the conditions the company agreed to was the creation of 62 full-time jobs, Williams said, adding that in return, Northampton County would pay the company $360,556.70 each year, in addition to 120 acres of land and upwards half a million dollars toward water, sewer and gas lines among other support.
But instead of boosting the economy out of the lowest tier, the five-year agreement was among the drivers of higher property taxes in the community.
“I think they over-incentivized their efforts to get these businesses here and it caused the tax rate to go up in order to meet the budget,” said Williams.
Between 2011 and 2019, the property tax rate in Northampton County increased nearly 6%. The county has had the third highest property tax rate in the state for the past five years.
It’s a burden many residents can’t shoulder.
Northampton has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state — which almost doubled during the Covid-19 pandemic — and nearly 22% of its residents are living in poverty.
“If the wood products industry and biomass were a way of growing strong rural economies in the southeastern region, these rural communities should be some of the wealthiest on the planet,” said Smith. “We are in the world’s largest wood producing region. But you don’t see any evidence in these rural communities of thriving rural economies. The opposite is actually true.”
Enviva currently employs 98 people at their Northampton facility and pay roughly 37% more than the average wage in the county, the company told CNN in a statement, adding that they strive to hire locally if workers have the right qualifications.
The salary is one of the reasons that even Macklin applied for jobs at Enviva, most recently about two years ago. He said he worked in wood mills before and had hoped for a job close to home, but he never heard back from the company. Macklin, who recently had major heart surgery, said he won’t apply again out of concern for his health.
“I wouldn’t want to be around all that dust,” Macklin said. “I don’t want to be inhaling it.”
On a hot Wednesday morning at the end of May, Joyner and fellow community activist Richie Harding, drove an hour and a half to Raleigh to protest against the wood pellet industry and deliver a petition to the governor’s office, asking him to keep future biomass operations out of North Carolina.
At a news conference, Joyner stressed that her community was a “dumping ground” for industries that nobody else wants to live near.
Harding, another lifelong Northampton County resident, called out what he perceives to be environmental racism targeting his hometown: “If Black lives matter, why is my community the desired location for a facility that would not only shorten my life, but the lives of my children?”
Despite wide-ranging arguments against biomass, Enviva has received more than $7 million in subsidies since 2013 from federal, state and local agencies to produce wood pellets for export to Europe.
Throughout the South, the biomass industry continues to grow. Twelve new plants across six states, including two proposed Enviva facilities in Alabama and Mississippi, have requested permits, according to data from the Southern Environmental Law Center. Existing plants, like the Enviva operation in Northampton, are expanding.
The EU, which aims to be climate-neutral by 2050, is set to revise its Renewable Energy Directive this summer and is expected to update sustainability criteria for biomass. Critics hope they will restrict biomass imports from overseas, exclude whole, living trees as “waste product” and properly account for carbon emissions from cutting and burning wood.
But a draft document that surfaced this past spring does not suggest substantial changes are coming for Europe’s directive.
None of the options offered will address the two main problems with biomass: burning wood for energy is worse than burning coal, and cutting down trees “profoundly damages ecosystems and biodiversity,” Mary Booth, scientist and director at the Partnership for Policy Integrity, wrote in a critique of the draft document.
The European Commission declined to comment on the draft, but confirmed the revised directive will be published on July 14.
In the US, federal policymakers have not yet determined the fate of wood pellets.
“Biomass is categorically incompatible with our climate, justice and health goals,” Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who successfully opposed the permitting of a biomass energy plant in his state, said in a statement to CNN. Neither the planet nor the United States, he said, can “afford to make the same … mistake that allowed the European Union to put biomass on the exact same level as truly renewable energy sources like wind and solar.”
Under former President Donald Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency planned to follow in Europe’s footsteps and classify biomass as a carbon-neutral energy source, but that never happened. Despite the Biden administration’s commitment to fight global warming, activists worry they won’t acknowledge the threat of biomass and industrial logging.
“It’s almost like in the US, all we see of value in a forest is a dollar bill,” Smith said. “We don’t recognize the costs of this destruction.”
Back in Northampton, Macklin feels just as defeated.
“Us being in a poor area… I mean, what can we do?” he said. “A company like that with money… we don’t got money to fight against it and it seems like we don’t got no one fighting for us. Not the state, no one.”