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Mississippi wood pellet plant that supplies UK electricity grid fined $2.5m over air pollution

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 19/02/2021 Emma Gatten
a tree in a forest: Wood pellets from trees in the US are shipped to the UK to fuel biomass plants - James Breeden © James Breeden Wood pellets from trees in the US are shipped to the UK to fuel biomass plants - James Breeden

A British-owned facility in the US that supplies wood pellets for green UK electricity has been fined $2.5m over air pollution breaches. 

Drax Amite processes wood from local forests in Mississippi into pellets that are shipped to the UK to be burned as renewable energy at the company’s facility in Yorkshire. 

It has been fined by the Mississippi Department on Environmental Quality (MDEQ) for breaching limits on volatile organic compounds, which can exacerbate respiratory conditions, since 2017. 

It is believed to be the largest such fine against a wood pellet facility. 

The fine was welcomed by local environmental campaigners, who have raised concerns over the impact of the UK biomass industry on local forests and air quality in the southern US, which they say impacts particularly on lower income communities. 

“We deserve the right to breathe clean air,” said Kathy Egland of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Drax was also ordered to install equipment to capture the VOC emissions, which are produced during the drying and milling process. 

The UK is one of the world’s biggest consumers of biomass, which accounts for 12 per cent of its electricity mix. 

Amid a push to move away from coal, the Government now provides the largest subsidies in Europe, with £1bn backing every year for the industry. 


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The vast majority of that goes to Drax, which has so far converted four of its six former coal units in Yorkshire to burn biomass. 

The company ships the majority of its wood pellets from the southern US, accounting for almost 60 per cent of the demand from the region. 

A Drax spokesperson said the company had monitored the emissions and notified MDEQ of its breach, and will finish installing equipment to reduce the pollution by July. 

It said: “The safety of our people and the communities in which we operate is our priority. We take our environmental responsibilities seriously and we are committed to complying with all local and federal regulations.”

The fine comes amid growing disquiet over the practice of burning biomass for electricity, which is classified as renewable under EU and UK regulations on the basis that the carbon dioxide emissions from burning waste wood are offset by new trees.

A recent letter from 500 scientists to US President Joe Biden, and leaders from the EU and Japan, called for the scrapping of subsidies and an end to the classification of biomass as carbon neutral. 

The scientists argue that growing demand for biomass is leading to a significant loss of carbon because of large-scale tree felling, which cannot be replaced quickly enough to avoid dangerous climate change. 

“It’s a relief to see Drax being held accountable for polluting the air in Mississippi, but these fines are a drop in the bucket compared to the two million per day the UK government hands the company in the form of biomass subsidies,” says Sasha Stashwick, from the Cut Carbon Not Forests Campaign, a coalition of US and UK NGOs. 

Drax recently agreed a £436m deal to acquire the Canadian Pinnacle Renewable Energy as it seeks to bolster its supplies, but it emerged this week that some of the plants currently use gas to dry the wood pellets, undermining their renewable credentials. 

Local activists in Latvia and Estonia have also raised concerns about the damage to ancient forests they say is driven by a demand for biomass. 

Drax maintains that it follows the highest biomass sustainability standards in the world. 

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