Guest Post By Carmella Wren-Causey
Across the world, countries are interested in the growing bioenergy industry’s claims about carbon neutrality. Woody biomass companies like Drax and Enviva claim that burning wood pellets instead of coal won’t contribute to climate change. This claim is not backed up by science, but the myth still persists.
Many European countries have already taken the biomass bait, but Japan is still exploring whether or not biomass is right for them. That’s why folks from Japan came to visit Gloster.
My name is Carmella Wren-Causey, and I live in Gloster, Mississippi. I live on land that’s been in my family for over a hundred years, with my puppy, horse, and newly added 3 kittens. Gloster is a small town in South Central Mississippi. We have about 1,000 citizens. We don’t even have a school in town. Our children have to be bussed more than a half hour just to attend school.
What we do have in Gloster, MS is a biomass plant. I live 1.2 miles from the Drax Amite Biomass plant.
This plant is open 24/7, produces over half a million tons of wood pellets every year, and ships the pellets around the world to Europe and Asia. Then those pellets are used for generating electricity. The companies tell us that it’s better than coal, but the truth is that these plants are dirty and pollute communities like mine.
Last month, I visited with a delegation from Japan that came to see the truth about biomass. Roger Smith, the Japan Campaign Director from the environmental NGO Mighty Earth, led the planning for the US biomass study tour. The group also included Sayoko Iinuma and Miyuki Tomari, two NGO leaders from the Global Environmental Forum working on biomass issues in Japan. Indy Juno from the National Wildlife Federation and Tokyo-based journalist Annelise Giseburt were also part of the group. These people were all here to see the impact biomass is having on the forests that surround us, my community, and myself. Here’s what they found.
Why would Japan come to visit rural Gloster, Mississippi?
The Japanese delegation wanted to learn and to see firsthand the impact that biomass has on the sourcing communities. They wanted to see and hear the log trucks that drive to the mills. They wanted to see how these plants are placed in the backyard of some families’ homes: where our children play.
The group also wanted to see the impact on the members of the community. Six residents of Gloster came out to share the impact that biomass is having on their health. Folks told many stories about how they’ve developed breathing problems:
- Residents who never had respiratory problems now have to use two to three different types of inhalers daily.
- Some people reported needing breathing treatments every four to six hours.
- Suddenly, some folks need to be on oxygen at all times.
- Some now have to sleep with oxygen or a CPAP machine.
- People even shared about dogs passing away because of sudden breathing problems.
Many blame other problems on Drax as well. Complaints range from skin issues, like welts or fungal infections, to stomach issues.
Drax’s presence has caused nothing but trouble for our community.
What is bioenergy?
You ask what bioenergy is? Bioenergy or biomass is energy generated or produced from living or once-living organisms. The energy from these organisms can be burned to create heat or converted into electricity. Some argue that because more biomass (aka trees) can be grown, this energy is “carbon neutral” and does not damage the environment. However, biomass at all stages (harvesting, processing, and final burning) creates lasting impacts on the natural world and human communities in and beyond those locations.
The biomass industry will tell you that wood pellets are usually made of compressed sawdust that is a waste product from other industries. While this was more true before biomass became popular, now more than 85% of the material used to produce wood pellets is from trees, not sawdust.
Wood pellets became popular because politicians declared it to be green and renewable – not because it actually is. But since other countries are rewarding green energy, biomass companies like Drax and Enviva receive government money (subsidies) to produce their polluting products.
What is Drax’s impact on Gloster?
A heartbreaking number of my neighbors have reported that they have skin, breathing, and sleep troubles now that Drax operates 24/7 in their backyard. The EJSCREEN tool from the EPA reveals that:
- Gloster is exposed to more particulate matter (PM2.5) than 80% of the US population.
- Gloster is in the 80th percentile for cancer risk due to exposure to air toxics.
- Gloster is experiencing more asthma than 80% of the country and more heart disease than 95% of the country.
Drax has been in Gloster for eight years, and since then, it’s:
- Produced up to 4.2 million tons of wood pellets, damaging over 90,000 acres of forest nearby.
- Been fined $2.5 million in 2021 for violating its air permit. None of that money went to the affected community.
How can YOU help Gloster today?
Like it or not, Drax is in Gloster to stay. I hope that the folks who visited Gloster from Japan are starting to understand the impacts of their energy choices. Without foreign demand, wood pellet mills like Drax Amite would shut down. While that wouldn’t bring schools or jobs to our area, it would at least stop the onslaught of pollution.
Let your voice be heard
If you’re ready to get involved, take your first step right now by telling President Biden to protect the forests and communities of the South.
Carmella Wren-Causey is a Storyteller in Environmental Justice Fellow with Dogwood Alliance. Carmella was born in Cleveland, Ohio, but has recently returned to her roots in Gloster, Mississippi. Admirer of the great outdoors, Carmella loves fishing, biking, and nature. She has a passion for flowers and gardening. Carmella came to Dogwood Alliance to tell her story about the Gloster community being impacted by biomass. She is a lifelong committed outreach servicer, now serving as chair of Economic Development and the Co-chair of Environmental Justice for the Amite County NAACP.