Louisiana Orders Wood Pellet Plant to Install Air Pollution Controls

After Challenge by Environmental Groups, Drax Morehouse Biomass Plant Must Reduce Smog-Forming Pollutants

Washington, DC – Louisiana regulators announced they will require a wood pellet manufacturing plant in the northeastern part of the state to install pollution control systems to reduce smog-forming emissions from the Drax Morehouse BioEnergy plant.

The 3.5 year-old plant near Bastrop, Louisiana, chops up trees to produce 578,000 tons of wood pellets a year that are burned in power plants to generate electricity, mostly in Europe.

In May and July 2018, the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), along with the Delta Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, filed written comments to the state challenging a proposed renewal of Drax’s air pollution control permit. The groups argued that the plant appeared to be emitting volatile organic compounds in an amount several times higher than the plant’s 250 ton per year limit.

In a letter received by EIP, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality announced that information provided by the groups as well as conversations with Drax had “persuaded” the agency that the plant is a “major” source of air pollution.  As a result, state regulators have placed the Drax plant on a mandatory “compliance schedule” requiring it to install the required air pollution controls.

“This is good news for air quality and the local community, because we know that Drax can reduce the plant’s emissions to legal levels without cutting jobs,” said Environmental Integrity Project attorney Patrick Anderson.  “In fact, the air pollution control technology that the Drax Morehouse plant needs to install is already being successfully used, for example, at a plant in Georgia. And the Georgia plant produces more wood pellets, while releasing less air pollution.”

In April 2018, the Environmental Integrity Project released a report detailing the numerous and severe violations of the Clean Air Act by the booming wood pellet manufacturing industry across the southeastern United States, including at the Drax Morehouse plant.

Although Drax initially denied the claims and asserted that their facility was in full compliance, a new company filing confirms that the facility’s actual emissions are 1,150 tons per year. That’s more than four times the 250 ton per year limit that applies to the facility.

In their comments on the Drax air permit, the groups contended that the plant was constructed in violation of federal Clean Air Act requirements (called “Prevention of Significant Deterioration,”) which require, among other things, that new major sources of air pollution utilize the best available control technology. On Friday, Environmental Integrity Project received a letter from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) saying that the state agreed.

“LDEQ is persuaded that the wood pellet manufacturing facility is a major stationary source under the Prevention of Significant Deterioration program,” the state agency wrote, and as a result, the plant must install “best available control technology.”

“We’re glad to see Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality take the first step and recognize that there’s a problem at the Drax plant,” said Wilma Subra at Louisiana Environmental Action Network. “Now, DEQ needs to follow through and ensure that the facility begins complying with the Clean Air Act as soon as possible.”

Adding the “best available control technology” at the Drax Morehouse plant in Louisiana should consist of the addition of at least two air pollution control devices (called “regenerative thermal oxidizers” or “regenerative catalytic oxidizers”) that can reduce volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants by 95 percent or more.

Troublingly, Drax has now asked Louisiana regulators for a “variance” allowing it to continue operating in violation of its current air pollution limits without penalty for at least another year. Drax agreed to comply with these limits prior to construction in 2015, and until recently, contended that it was complying with them. Drax now claims that complying with these limits would force it to close or cut jobs, but Environmental Integrity Project disputes that claim.

“Controls that are capable of reducing the Drax plant’s air pollution by more than 95 percent are readily available and should be installed immediately,” said Keri Powell, the director of Environmental Integrity Project’s wood biomass project. “This plant has been skirting Clean Air Act requirements since it began operations in 2015, and would have continued doing so if concerned citizen organizations had not forced LDEQ to confront the problem,” she said. “It’s time for Drax to clean up its act.”

The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, that protects public health and the environment by investigating polluters, holding them accountable under the law, and strengthening public policy.

Media Contact: Keri N. Powell, Environmental Integrity Project, (678) 902-4450 kpowell@powellenvironmentallaw.com