April 15, 2024

Gloria Alonso Cruz had just started working on environmental justice issues at a community organization in Stockton, California, when she learned of a proposal to sell wood pellets from the town’s port to overseas energy markets.

Golden State Natural Resources plans to build two wood pellet plants in Lassen and Tuolumne counties, about 250 miles north of Stockton, with the goal of exporting a million tons a year. While forest-based biomass may sound innocuous, every part of the pellet production chain carries an environmental justice or pollution risk, says Rita Vaughan Frost, forest advocate at Natural Resources Defense Council.

First, trees are boiled and stacked on trucks to be driven to processing facilities. There, the wood is turned into small pellets, similar to rabbit food. Then diesel trucks transport the material hundreds of miles to a shipping facility and export terminal, such as the Port of Stockton – where storage poses a fire risk. The pellets are later sent to markets in Europe and Asia, where they are burned to create electricity, which generates carbon emissions.

Golden State Natural Resource’s proposal would allow it to harvest trees from forests within 100 miles of the two processing plants. This radius includes sixteen national forests in a region known for them critical biodiversity. A 20-year master stewardship agreement established with the U.S. Forest Service will allow the company to harvest from public land until 2045, when the state is slated to achieve carbon neutrality.

Many may be surprised to learn that burning wood pellets causes more pollution per unit of electricity than coal do, says Dr. Shaye Wolf, the director of climate science at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It exacerbates the climate emergency at a time when we need to rapidly reduce those carbon emissions,” says Wolf.

In Stockton, the threat of logging exports exacerbates environmental injustices that already exist. State laws do not prevent companies from building polluting facilities in already congested areas, nor is there any statute or legal framework that forces corporations to consider federal goals of transitioning to renewable energy sources.

This means that there are no federal or state rails to protect against “developers failing to account for cumulative impacts, [or] the fact that these natural resources are finite,” says Cruz. In fact, Stockton already has a lot of pollution: it’s in the 90th percentile statewide, according to CalEnviroScreen, a tool for mapping environmental hazards. Compared to other cities across California, Stockton’s has some of the highest overall exposure to toxins such as ozone, particulate matter and groundwater threats.

Cruz says this is intentional, noting that the communities of color and farm workers who live and work in the state’s Central Valley have always borne the public health consequences that industries leave in their wake. In fact, California poured public funds into the biomass industry in the 1980s and 1990s to support the construction of factories in low-income communities. Now the wood pellet biomass industry and Golden State Natural Resources are poised to make the situation worse.

In 2015 the state a new law passed it requires polluting corporations, like the wood pellet industry, to pay for environmental justice projects in disadvantaged cities like Stockon, but advocates like Cruz argue that corporations shouldn’t be allowed to pollute in the first place. At least across the state four active biomass plants are in census tracts facing the worst pollution burden.

Looking at how the biomass industry currently operates in the Southeastern United States heightens residents’ concerns. Companies there have a track record of preying on overburdened and under-resourced communities, says Vaughan Frost.

In the South, grist mills are 50% more likely to be located in communities of color that fall within the state bread line. Although the industry likes to talk about providing jobs, in one North Carolina community, the poverty rate actually increased after a wood pellet production plant began operating.

Wherever pellet mills take root, pollution soon follows. A strong smell, similar to plastic burning in a campfire, often emanates from these processing facilities. Heather Hillaker, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, says that processing the wood creates volatile organic compounds, which mix with other pollutants to create ground-level ozone and smog. Processing facilities also release toxins such as formaldehyde, methanol and acrolein, substances that can cause cancer even in small doses.

Hillaker cautions that federal standards set by the Clean Air Act don’t take into account the multiple forms of pollution that congested communities face, she says.

“I haven’t really seen the grain industry directly address the environmental justice impact of their operations in the South in any meaningful way,” says Hillaker. She explains that they often argue “We are getting our permits and therefore we are not causing any damage.” But she says, “It’s not an accurate representation of what’s really happening in these local communities.”

Vaughan Frost worries that Golden State Natural Resources will similarly undermine the health and well-being of California communities.

Vaughan Frost believes the industry is “exploiting the state’s traumatic experience of catastrophic wildfires to sell their plan.” The company claims that cutting down forests will provide less fuel for wildfires – a claim that the state of California has historically parrot. Many scientists disagree. One recent study found that in fire-prone western states, emissions associated with broad-scale thinning of biomass crops were five times greater than those associated with wildfires. California also has a history of clumping in wood pellet biomass as a “renewable” energy source, which critics say obscures the industry’s composite climate threats. She says these claims – that logging can prevent wildfires and create renewable energy – are a distraction from legitimate wildfire prevention strategies, such as home hardening and vegetation management.

Advocates worry that recovery will be difficult once the forest is gone. The wood pellet industry will soon make inroads through the Sierra Nevadas, a much-loved mountain range that regularly attracts outdoor tourists. Although the industry promises to replant what they record, as climate change increases, there is no guarantee that monoculture saplings will be able to provide the same ecosystem services that the boiled forest once did.

With abundant wind and solar energy available, Vaughan Frost says, “We don’t have to sacrifice California forests and communities for this.”

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international non-profit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Founded in 1970, NRDC uses science, policy, legislation and people power to confront the climate crisis, protect public health and protect nature. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, Beijing and Delhi (an office of NRDC India Pvt. Ltd). Learn more athttp://www.nrdc.org and follow on Twitter @NRDC.

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