VICTORY! Southern Community Stops Wood Pellet Facility

In the rural town of White Oak, South Carolina, residents breathe a sigh of relief as their months of hard work pay off:

This town will not be living with a wood pellet facility in their neighborhood.

Last week, it was confirmed that a group of local residents and surrounding landowners successfully purchased the 15 acres that Abengoa, Inc. needed to build the pellet mill. The purchase marks the end of the wood pellet facility’s plans to produce 530,000 tons of wood pellets a year from the forests surrounding White Oak.

Stopping the Abengoa wood pellet facility is a victory for our forests, our climate and our Southern communities.

White Oak, located in Fairfield County, SC, is a community with deep roots. It is a place where families have lived for generations, where children go into family businesses and where dreams of the future are vibrant. Just 30 miles north of Columbia, SC, White Oak is the epitome of small-town charm. The downtown Winnsboro area features historical buildings from the turn of the 20th century, and the surrounding neighborhoods are home to towering magnolia, oak and pecan trees that hold the stories of earlier generations. It’s the type of place, according to resident Liz Hutcheson, that “takes me back to a time when neighbors know who you are and people care for you. It is Mayberry.” It is a place worth fighting for.

Downtown Winnsboro
Downtown Winnsboro, SC

Unfortunately, it’s not easy living for all of Fairfield County. With a population of approximately 23,000, nearly 8% are unemployed. The residents welcome development that brings jobs and that benefits the local community and environment, but it was clear that the wood pellet industry was not the right fit for Fairfield County.

Robert Davis, a former County Councilman and longtime resident of White Oak, explained:

“even though the county is in need of a tax base, the negatives [of a wood pellet facility] would be overwhelming. The industry was just too much for this area.”

That sentiment is echoed throughout the county.

Robert Davis, Fairfield County Council Member from 1985-2002

White Oak is the story of the Southern US. From Clinton, South Carolina, to Baton Rouge, LA, Dogwood Alliance is supporting communities that are organizing to halt the growth of a wood pellet industry that threatens their forests, climate and way of life.

People are fighting for the places they know and love, and they are fighting because they know they have to win. And they can win.

Last fall, White Oak residents were shocked to learn that Abengoa Energy Crops, an international energy corporation, had plans to disrupt the peace and tranquility that is the lifeblood of White Oak with a 530,000 tons per year wood pellet production industry. Abengoa planned to build in a residential area, right between two African-American farming communities that had been there for decades. The facility would provide few local jobs, and the product would be shipped abroad, to feed a European energy market.

Residents quickly banded together to build a force that took the county council and industry by surprise.

Tom Patrick, a resident who helped craft the land purchase, emphasized that, “Everyone in the community worked so hard. It was a combined effort.” Patrick, the founder of a consulting forestry business, has lived in White Oak since 1979, and his family for generations before him. Until he visited the Enviva wood pellet facility in Northampton VA, he did not fully understand the size and scope of this type of facility. He worried about the noise, the dust and the impact on his property values. “I sit out here and listen to nature.” If the facility went in across the street, “that was going to be over.” If he moved in the future, he worried that “no one would want to live in this house.”

Robert Davis, who has grown up in White Oak, agrees. He has watched the neighborhood change over the years as more people move in, and though he reminisces about a time when he was the only house on the block, he is optimistic of a future where residents can still listen to the sound of the birds singing and children playing.

Robert wants development for his neighborhood, but something that is:

“compatible with Fairfield County. Something that benefits the community without being detrimental to the environment or the neighborhood.”

For White Oak residents, the land buy was a sure way to ensure that Abengoa would not locate at that site. But it wasn’t the only avenue pursued. The community examined every angle – pressuring the local county council, reviewing state documents, legal strategies. One way or another they were going to stop this pellet mill.

Stop the Pellet Mill Resize 600 cropped
Residents put up Stop the Pellet Mill signs throughout the community.

Liz Hutcheson, an active member of the group opposing the facility, has lived in Fairfield County for 16 years. Her and her husband, Hutch, purchased their dream home in White Oak a year and a half ago, just a mile from the proposed Abengoa site. She speaks passionately about her love for the surrounding area and community, and she feels deeply the affront by Abengoa and the county council.

“It’s just cruel to do that to a community – to put that monstrosity right in the middle of a neighborhood!”

Liz worried about the smell, the dust and the noise of the plant. The thought of this facility down the road, driving her to stay indoors to avoid the headaches that would be brought on by the particulate matter and smell was depressing. She knew, though, that to let anger take over would not advance her cause.

Local resident Liz Hutcheson had concerns about the dust, noise, smell and truck traffic of the proposed Abengoa wood pellet facility.

When I asked her if she had any advice for other communities, Liz confided,“It can be overwhelming.”

“But you’ve got to pull yourself together. Get organized. Make a list of what you want to do, get together with your community, and start right away – there’s no time to waste”.

Robert Davis, thinking back on his 18 years in county council, encouraged other communities facing a plant to get their elected officials to actually visit a wood pellet facility to get a real sense of the size, the noise and the dust.

All residents can agree with Liz when she reminded me, “You’ve got to stop it on the front end. It is a lot of work, but it is so worth it.”

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