Georgia Administrative Court Judge Shakara Barnes recently ruled that a hearing should be held on claims that the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) discriminated against minority residents in Adel by approving an air quality permit for a proposed new wood pellet plant to be built here.
The hearing date is from Dec. 12 to Dec. 16, 2022.
Judge Barnes partially denied EPD’s motion to dismiss the complaint over the decision to allow Spectrum Energy Georgia to operate the facility at the former Weyerhaeuser plant in Adel, once it has been retrofitted for wood pellet production, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC).
The Southern Environmental Law Center has described the planned facility in court filings as “the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturing facility adjacent to a predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhood.”
“The Spectrum factory is the second wood pellet mill approved for construction on the western side of the city, where residents are predominantly people of color who say they already suffer from pollution from multiple industrial sources,” the AJC reported. “The Southern Environmental Law Center and Concerned Citizens of Cook County filed the complaint arguing the state had a duty to consider the demographics of the area and the cumulative impact of other pollution sources before approving the permit. The state has countered that it follows the same process for all permit applicants.”
According to the environmental groups, Spectrum’s wood pellet plant is not the first of its kind proposed: In 2021, EPD issued a permit to the Renewable Biomass Group, which is slated to produce 450,000 metric tons per year of industrial wood pellets. The Renewable Biomass plant is planned to be built off of Highway 41 South in Adel.
In October 2021, Spectrum submitted a permit application to construct and operate a wood pellet manufacturing facility with a capacity of 600,000 tons of wood pellets per year in Phase 1 and 1,320,000 tons in Phase 2. “Operating at full capacity, Spectrum would become the largest wood pellet manufacturing facility in the world,” according to the environmental groups.
Dr. Treva Gear with Concerned Citizens of Cook County told AJC that she was “ecstatic” over the judge’s decision to hear the evidence. “It felt like it was the first time we’ve had a true opportunity for justice,” she said. “We’re about to actually be heard by somebody who can do something.”
According to AJC, “representatives for Spectrum, which is also party to the case, did not respond to requests for comment. A representative of Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, whose office is representing EPD, declined to comment citing pending litigation.”
The AJC article further states, “the state permit application filed by Spectrum says the plant will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and emit particulates and hazardous pollutants. Because of its size and the quantity of pollutants, it will have to apply for an additional permit under what is known as the Title V program within 12 months of operation.”
“Wood pellet plants release air particles that create air quality problems and are linked to serious health issues, like asthma and heart disease,” according to a release from the environmental groups explaining their opposition to the plants. “These harmful facilities are often built near predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, continuing a legacy of environmental injustice in areas already dealing with an unfair share of pollution.
“The Environmental Protection Division’s issuance of the permit authorizing the construction of Spectrum’s wood pellet facility in west Adel violates the Clean Air Act and threatens the health and welfare of local residents who have voiced their concerns to the agency in two different comment letters. In addition to Clean Air Act violations, EPD’s decision to permit a facility to build first, then test later circumvents the non-discrimination goals outlined by the Environmental Protection Agency to allow meaningful participation in the process, safeguard public health and welfare, and prevent pollution.”
Supporters of the new industry planned for Highway 41 South – the first of its kind for the Houston, Texas-based Renewable Biomass Group (RBG) – say it will create 70 new jobs as it ramps up production and will have a positive local economic impact with indirect jobs, such as in transportation. Craig Whitlock, the company’s CEO, says the industry won’t require clear-cutting of forests and it will conform with all state and federal regulations for emissions.
Scot Corbett, a company official with Spectrum, told the Adel News in a previous interview that his attorney has filed a motion of intervention on the air permit issue, and will file a motion for dismissal of the environmental groups’ action “on unfounded grounds.”
Spectrum has followed all the necessary legal steps to obtain the air quality permit and “complied with everything,” Corbett said. “We feel we’re being unjustly disadvantaged.”
Corbett told the Adel News that he anticipates that Spectrum will directly employ 100 people and an assessment showed that the plant will have an indirect employment impact of about 400, including loggers and log truck drivers.
Corbett said the Spectrum plant was scheduled to start production during the second quarter of 2023 and to be fully operational during the fourth quarter of 2023.
Jennifer Whitfield, a senior attorney in the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Georgia office, told AJC that construction of the plant would worsen “the historic environmental discrimination on the Black and Brown community next door.”
“The agency has a duty to administer permits in a nondiscriminatory manner,” she said in an emailed statement. “The residents who face the risk of breathing polluted air, all for Spectrum’s profits, deserve a say.”
(AJC noted with their article on this issue that “this coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at ajc.com/donate/climate.”)