Climate and health fuel opponents of North Carolina poultry powerhouse

Meridith Allen fears her family will suffer if a facility that burns poultry litter and parts for fuel is allowed to resume operations near her home.

Allen lives in Lumberton, about two miles from a facility where NC Renewable Power feeds poultry waste and “poultry cake” into a pair of boilers to generate electricity. The plant has been closed since November 2020, but when in operation it also uses steam from these boilers to run three belt dryers which can dry up to 90 tonnes of woodchips per hour before they not be sold off-site, according to authorize documents filed with the state.

These activities result in emissions of pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, all of which can affect human health and are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Prevention of Significant Deterioration rules. Allen fears the plant’s emissions could aggravate her son’s asthma or her husband’s illness that is blistering his lungs.

“That carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide, all that they release from the factory is making it worse,” Allen said of her husband’s condition, “and at any moment he could have a lung. collapsed or having to come in and have more operation performed.”

NC Renewable Power is asking the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to amend its permit so it can be regulated as a major source of air pollution and eventually resume operations. Under its existing ‘minor permit’, the company can emit 250 tonnes of pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides without incurring penalties.

If approved, the proposed permit would require NC Renewable Power to install emissions control technology that would reduce levels of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide. But if the plant operates at full capacity over a one-year period, the plant could legally emit as much carbon monoxide and total greenhouse gases – 1,224 tonnes and 438,825 tonnes, respectively – as it can under their existing licence.

More than 30 opponents of the NC Renewable Power facility spoke at a virtual public hearing on Monday, outlining concerns ranging from how the emissions will affect people living near Lumberton to whether the company conducts adequate monitoring.

NC Renewable Power was North Carolina’s 10th-largest emitter of carbon monoxide in 2017, the latest year for which the Environmental Protection Agency has data. At 1,262 tons, the plant emitted more carbon monoxide than at least seven other power plants, several of which were coal-fired.

The story of NC Renewable Power

The Hestertown Road facility was built as a coal-fired power plant in the 1980s by Cogentrix, but closed in 2009. Georgia Renewable Power reopened the plant in 2015 as NC Renewable Power.

In its original May 2015 permit, NC Renewable Power was allowed to burn chicken litter, but not coal, natural gas or other fuels. The plant was allowed to emit 250 tonnes per year of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.

Carey Davis, executive vice president of Georgia Renewable Power, wrote in a statement that when the facility opened, the company believed the 250-tonne-per-year limits would be sufficient for the poultry waste the plant intended to burn.

The plant added poultry litter to its fuel mix in October 2015. The following year, the plant approached its annual carbon monoxide limit on March 7.

This led to a consent agreement with DEQ.

After the boilers released 46.2 tonnes of carbon monoxide in September 2016, the company was forced into a second consent agreement. That same month, the facility’s total carbon monoxide emissions for 2016 passed the 250-ton mark, violating its permit.

This second consent agreement, reached in January 2017, requires Georgia Renewable Power to use “the best available technology” to apply for a permit that would address carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide emissions under rules for preventing significant deterioration. If the license is issued, it will replace the consent order.

Since 2016, DEQ has fined NC Renewable Power more than $76,000, with violations ranging from exceeding pollutant limits to excessive downtime for pollution monitoring equipment. These penalties were spread across seven Notices of Violation and resulted in consent agreements between regulators and the factory owner.

“Fines are not a deterrent to this business,” Anita Cunningham, a Robeson County resident who lives about two miles from the plant, said at Monday’s public hearing.

In an email, Davis wrote that the permit approval would allow the company to update the technology it uses to control emissions and service its boilers to limit pollutants. The facility, Davis wrote, “will not restart until emissions control technology upgrades are installed and boiler maintenance is complete.”

Burn poultry waste for electricity

Burning poultry waste for electricity became part of North Carolina’s energy mix with a 2007 law requiring utilities to include renewable energy sources in their portfolios. That law also required utilities to generate a total of 900,000 megawatt hours of electricity from poultry waste by 2016, a benchmark that the NC Utilities Commission has repeatedly lowered.

Many at Monday’s public hearing said the plant’s proximity to communities with high proportions of American Indian or Black or lower income raises environmental justice concerns. .

An analysis by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality found that 41% of the 606 people living within a mile of the plant are black, more than 10% more than the state and Robeson County; and 16% identify as American Indian. Within a mile of the facility, DEQ estimated the per capita income over the past year to be $16,644, lower than Robeson County’s $17,161 and well below the $28,123 of North Carolina.

“We’re the poorest county,” Allen said. “We already have one of the worst tunes in North Carolina, and then putting these plants in black, brown, native communities, very poor areas — it just seems very unfair.”

Patrick Anderson, a Georgia-based attorney representing the Environmental Integrity Project, said the NC Renewable Power facility should also be classified as a major source of hazardous air pollutants associated with its drying strips. Currently, Anderson said, the mill only accounts for formaldehyde and methanol that are released when wood is dried, not four additional chemicals commonly associated with drying operations.

“A major source (of hazardous air pollutants) is subject to much stricter emissions limits, monitoring requirements and testing requirements,” Anderson said.

He suggested that the facility be required to use catalytic oxidation to control pollution. This process burns emissions at high temperatures, destroying certain pollutants and turning carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide – exchanging a toxic gas for a gas that causes climate change.

Georgia Renewable Power’s facilities in the state of Georgia use this technology, Anderson said. The company argues that catalytic oxidation cannot be installed in the Robeson facility because the chemical composition of the poultry litter could vary, which would limit the effectiveness of the control.

“They’re basically arguing that because we’re burning poultry waste, we’re emitting a lot of carbon monoxide, but we can’t install controls to reduce carbon monoxide because we’re burning poultry waste,” Anderson said.

This story was produced with the financial support of 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of a freelance journalism fellowship program. The N&O retains full editorial control of the work.

This story was originally published February 26, 2022 8:30 a.m.

Adam Wagner covers climate change and other environmental issues in North Carolina. Her work is produced with the financial support of 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of a freelance journalism fellowship program. Wagner’s previous work at The News & Observer included coverage of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and North Carolina’s recovery from recent hurricanes. He previously worked at the Wilmington StarNews.