Enviva Southampton biomass plant
The Enviva wood pellet plant in Southampton, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong/The Virginia Mercury)

FRANKLIN — In the old mill town of Franklin, the streets smell of gasoline and fast food, peanuts by the millions and wood — mostly wood.

To some, it’s the smell of money, an indicator of the industry that keeps the local economy going. To others, it’s a reminder of the hazardous air pollution that environmentalists believe the Enviva Southampton wood pellet plant, located just beyond the city line, has been knowingly emitting above federal limits since its opening in 2013.

“You can feel it, like sawdust,” said Terry Holloman. A former employee of the paper mill in Franklin, Holloman and his wife, Nancy, live a stone’s throw from Enviva, and 24 hours a day they say they can hear the relentless thrumming of its debarking machines.

The Hollomans have been near neighbors of Enviva since it began operations in Southampton six years ago, and the news this summer that the facility was planning to expand its production by 46 percent sparked their concern. Their worries are largely about the effects of industrial development: noise, light pollution and heavier truck traffic on rural back roads. But Terry Holloman also had reservations about the plant’s air pollution controls.

He wasn’t alone. Heather Hillaker, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who has been involved in efforts to force Enviva to add more air pollution controls at its North Carolina plants, told the Mercury that there’s “credible evidence” that the Southampton facility has been exceeding federal hazardous air pollutant limits for years.

Enviva disputes the contention: “We have never had any notice of violation issued to us under the Southampton permit,” wrote Maria Moreno, a member of Enviva’s media relations team, in an email. “Results from state agency required emissions tests demonstrate that the facility is in full compliance with all applicable permit conditions.”

Nevertheless, as the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality considers issuing a new air permit to Enviva Southampton that will accommodate its proposed $75 million expansion, the agency is requiring the company to add major new pollution controls to existing equipment — whether or not the expansion ever happens.

“This plant needs these additional controls, and now that they’ve applied for the permit, it gives us the opportunity to require that,” said John Brandt, an air compliance and monitoring manager for DEQ.

While the facility’s current permit does include some pollution controls, one key control it initially included, the regenerative thermal oxidizer — which “cleans” exhaust by heating it to extremely high temperatures — was later eliminated after Enviva altered the mix of hard- and softwood used to make its pellets, a move that affects the quantities of certain types of pollution that are emitted.

When Enviva first arrived in Southampton, “we really didn’t have a lot of experience with pellet manufacturing plants,” said Brandt. “Since then we have learned a lot more and things have been pointed out to us.”

Wood pellet production emerged as a major industry in the U.S. in the 2000s when European countries attempting to wean themselves off fossil fuels began subsidizing its use for power plants. A September 2018 briefing by the U.S. International Trade Commission reported that in 2017 the U.S. exported almost three-quarters of its wood pellet and other biomass production. Most of that production occurs in the Southeast, where the timber industry is well established.

Under Enviva’s current permit at Southampton, the company is allowed to produce about 535,000 tons of wood pellets per year. The new permit would raise the production threshold to about 781,000 tons per year.

With that growth would come increased limits on some types of air pollution. Nitrogen oxides would be allowed to more than double, from 75.6 to 177.5 tons annually, while carbon monoxide emissions would more than triple, from 52.7 to 176.8 tons per year. Sulfur dioxide and some particulate matter emissions would also increase.

At the same time, the new controls required by DEQ — most notably, four regenerative thermal oxidizers — would greatly reduce two categories of pollutants: volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants.

Volatile organic compounds, which are a significant contributor to smog, would decline from 245 to 80 tons per year, while hazardous air pollutants, a category of air toxics that cause cancer and other serious health conditions, would drop from 24.1 to 18.3 tons per year. The latter group of pollutants includes a range of substances that include familiar ones like formaldehyde to less well-known ones like perchloroethylene, which is emitted from some dry cleaning facilities.

Both Enviva’s existing permit and its draft permit classify the facility as a “synthetic minor” source, meaning that it has the potential to emit more than 250 tons of certain regulated pollutants per year — a threshold that would trigger a “major” classification involving more rigorous pollution standards — but the company has agreed to limit its emissions levels below 250 tons.

Despite the minor classification, Brandt said that the air pollution controls DEQ is requiring and the analyses it conducted to prepare the permit “are largely equivalent to what we would have required had we permitted them at ‘major’ source levels instead of as a ‘synthetic minor.'”

For the Southern Environmental Law Center and Environmental Integrity Project, however, the problem is less the emissions limits that have been set for the Southampton facility and more the evidence that they say exists showing that Enviva Southampton has consistently been exceeding those limits when it comes to hazardous air pollutants.

In a wide-ranging critique of the southeastern wood biomass industry published in April 2018, the Environmental Integrity Project claimed that the Southampton plant was likely producing almost double the amount of hazardous air pollutants that it claimed, equal to 46 tons per year rather than its reported 24.1 tons, and far above the 25-ton threshold set by the federal Clean Air Act.

This group’s calculation was estimated based on the results of stack tests at 11 other operating biomass facilities throughout the southeastern U.S.

In a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam written the same month, the Environmental Integrity Project stated that “it is simply implausible that Enviva Southampton is not exceeding its permit limits, and likewise, the Clean Air Act’s major source threshold for (hazardous air pollutants).” The nonprofit watchdog subsequently sent a letter to DEQ urging the agency to take enforcement action against the company.

DEQ has not conducted independent testing of the facility’s hazardous air pollutant emissions. Agency spokeswoman Ann Regn said that the state did ask Enviva to test those emissions in June 2018, but the company requested that the requirement be postponed until after its expansion.

Exactly what testing has been done at Enviva Southampton by the company is unclear. A July 2018 letter from Ramboll, a consultant for one of Enviva’s facilities, to North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality obtained by the Southern Environmental Law Center lists two tests for hazardous air pollutant emissions conducted at the Southampton plant in 2013 and 2015. But at an information session on the expansion hosted by DEQ early in August, DEQ permit coordinator Stan Faggert said that agency regulators “have never seen any testing” for these emissions from Enviva.

Asked by an audience member whether DEQ had any proof of Enviva exceeding its emissions limits for hazardous air pollutants, Faggert responded: “We don’t feel we have enough evidence to come to that conclusion with certainty.”

Moreno did not directly respond to two questions from the Mercury about what testing had been conducted for hazardous air pollutant emissions at Southampton or whether the results of the 2013 and 2015 tests had been shared with DEQ.

“We have proposed additional state-of-the-art emissions control equipment at various points in the process,” she wrote. “Upon issuance of the permit and installation of the air emission control equipment, our Southampton facility will be one of the most controlled plants in the country, if not the world, demonstrating our environmental stewardship in the industry and beyond.”

During the August information session, Hillaker acknowledged that DEQ’s new pollution controls “will likely resolve any of these potential exceedance issues” but expressed disappointment that the agency was not taking more immediate action.

“It’s been over a year now since the department initially became aware of these potential exceedances, and it will probably be a year or so before the controls are actually operational,” she said.

DEQ will hold a public hearing on Enviva’s new draft permit in Franklin Sept. 12. Public comment on the permit will end Sept. 27.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Enviva spokeswoman Maria Moreno’s name.