Enviva Northampton: A Wood Pellet Plant Harming NC Residents

The Enviva Northampton plant opened in 2013. It was one of the largest bioenergy wood pellet plants in operation at the time. We estimate that the Northampton County Enviva plant has produced 6.2 million tons of wood pellets. This has resulted in the destruction of over 149,000 acres of forest.

Enviva produces wood pellets by breaking down logs into wood chips. Chips then get compressed into pellets, which are then shipped overseas. This process requires large machines that produce a lot of dust and explosion risk.

European and Asian power plants burn wood pellets for electricity. This is because international climate agreements have wrongfully declared bioenergy as carbon neutral. Companies like Enviva are reliant on international government contracts. They do not make products for sale locally.

Environmental Quality at Enviva Northampton

Air pollution from Northampton Enviva Facility

Communities have concerns about pollution coming from the Northampton County wood pellet plant. This is, in part, because of lax enforcement by the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). When Enviva built this plant, they claimed it would be a minor source of air pollutants. Two years later, they requested that DEQ remove the permit restrictions. And DEQ did – without any extra air pollution controls required.

As a result, the company’s Northampton wood pellet plant emits 377 tons of volatile organic compounds. Enviva emits these compounds, like formaldehyde, directly into the air. Nearby communities live with and breathe in this pollution every day.

Making wood pellets is dangerous business. Other incidents like fires or explosions happen at wood pellet plants. When these incidents happen, neighbors nearby are subject to even more air pollution.

Are wood pellets really carbon neutral?

Switching to burning wood pellets from coal seems like a simple climate solution. Carbon counting assumes that trees will always regrow. So in this scheme, the carbon is “free” compared to fossil fuel sources. But the truth about bioenergy’s impact on climate is not so simple.

Burning wood pellets releases more carbon than burning gas, oil, or even coal. This is accelerating climate change. Our climate needs action now. It can’t wait decades for trees to regrow. Instead of pellets, we need to use low-carbon technologies. Newer technologies like solar and wind, not coal and wood pellets. Enviva’s presence in Northampton County creates a perverse incentive. It encourages communities to destroy forests instead of allowing forest growth. We need true forest conservation to combat climate change. We don’t need to destroy our forests in support of European energy demands.

Enviva’s presence creates more emissions

Enviva’s emissions are not minor. Since the Northampton plant opened, the plant has likely produced over 5.2 million tons of wood pellets. All that wood is equivalent to 11.2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions released.

Heavy industrial plants like these are not the solution to economic woes. There are already manufacturing and industry jobs available that don’t result in pollution. The only way to reduce emissions to an acceptable level is to phase out wood pellet production. It doesn’t matter if Enviva is only sourcing trees from privately owned forests. We need more forest inventory, not less.

The Economics of Enviva in Northampton County

Government subsidies and grants to Enviva Northampton County

According to Enviva, Northampton County’s Economic Development Authority (EDA) invited Enviva in. The EDA’s objective was to create an industry-heavy zone to promote economic growth. The Economic Development Commission awarded Enviva $348,797 in 2011. That prize split into two:

  • $299,216 of land (210 acres of Northampton Commerce Park) given to the company
  • $49,581 of surrounding infrastructural improvements, such as like roads, pumps, and project signs

Enviva Northampton has also received:

This was a total of $2,846,580 that the government gave Enviva to lure them into the county. Journalists and nonprofit organizations haven’t yet uncovered additional incentives, subsidies, or tax credits.

Enviva Northampton wood pellet operations

Enviva’s Total Economic Impact

There’s some evidence that incentives to Enviva have resulted in higher tax rates. In eight years (2011-2019), the property tax rate in Northampton county increased by 6%. Despite high poverty (22%), the county has the third highest property tax rate in the state. This is in direct conflict with what Enviva and the county are saying. They claim that this industry will pull Northampton County out of poverty.

Enviva employs 97 people in Northampton county. They claim that they pay more than Northampton county’s average wage. But the Enviva Northampton plant employs less than 2% of people who work in the county. Their weekly take-home wage is still well below the national average. And yet, Enviva has received millions of dollars in subsidies to support their business. These subsidies are at the expense of the average citizen’s property tax rate.

Where do Enviva’s company officials live?

Many of Enviva’s top company officials actually live in the Washington, DC metro area. This is far away from the facilities and the impacts that they’re having on the ground. The executives may visit North Carolina and the Northampton plant, but they don’t stay more than a few nights.

Forest Loss In Northampton’s Sourcing Zone

How much forest has Northampton County lost since 2013?

Private forest landowners own 97% of forest land in Northampton County, North Carolina. While not every forest owner chooses to support the forest products industry, some do. As a result, Northampton County has lost more than 33,449 acres of forest since 2013. 2013 is when the Northampton plant opened in North Carolina. This is a 52% increase of logging compared to the previous period (2005-2012).

What are low value wood, low grade wood, and wood waste?

“Low value”, “low grade”, and “wood waste” are all used interchangeably. They describe natural forests that are not immediately perfect for lumber or paper. In the wild, these trees provide great habitat for wildlife, cool the climate, and clean our air and water. But for companies like Enviva, trees are nothing more than a commodity to be traded.

They use confusing terms like “wood waste” as greenwashing, pure and simple. They make it sound nice, so the average person doesn’t question where they get their wood from.

Is what Enviva does “sustainable” forestry?

Sustainability is the idea that we shouldn’t take down more trees than are allowed to grow. It’s a great concept, but Enviva doesn’t even meet this bar, especially in Northampton. A recent study found that hardwood forest harvests exceeded growth. This resulted in a net loss of hardwood forest cover in the area around Enviva’s three NC pellet mills. The study covered pellet mills at Ahoskie, Northampton, and Southampton.

From 2016-2018, Enviva’s three mills consumed nearly half of all wood from hardwood forest clearings in the three-mill sourcing area. Sourcing for Enviva’s mills likely contributed to overall declines in carbon stocks in hardwood forests in the 3-mill area. Does that sound sustainable to you?

What can we do about Enviva Northampton?

Community organizers are working hard to reduce the impacts of Enviva Northampton. From pollution and fires to noise and trucks, the community is taking notice. You, too, can be a part of the solution.

Stop the subsidies funding forest destruction and injustice.

Or sign up to become a Forest Defender. Your monthly gift helps defend the forests and communities we love.

3 Responses to “Enviva Northampton: A Wood Pellet Plant Harming NC Residents”

  1. David B Maclean

    Burning biomass eg wood for energy is like borrowing money with paying back the energy debt during the many years e.g. 30-50 years until a new crop of trees matures. to supply more biomass.

    • Sam Davis

      Sadly, the “pay back” period is too far and the logging is way too intense for wood pellets to make any sense as a tool for climate protection. Wood pellets are only adding to the urgency and severity of the climate crisis.


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