A wood pellet producing facility in Gloster, Miss, has been dumping noxious VOCs on Black neighbors for years without notice.
The Drax Biomass Inc. Amite Bioenergy facility snuggles right up behind Blackmon Hole trailer park in Gloster, Miss. The majority-Black, low-income community and the plant are so close together I can’t tell which one is sitting in the other’s backyard. It is the plant that dominates the countryside, however. It peeks over the levee of a retention pond, and I can hear its one-note industrial whine from where I stand in the back most lot. It sounds like a street cleaner parked right in your driveway, and residents say that sound runs 24/7.
“It never, ever stops. It’s noise pollution. That’s what it is. And that ain’t all the pollution we get, baby,” says one resident, who refuses to give her name. She and her neighbors claim storms bring water creeping out of the pond. The runoff carries an oily, rainbow iridescence that everyone instinctively knows not to touch. Residents don’t speak openly about the plant out of perceived retaliation from town Mayor Wayne Norwood, who supports the facility. One resident said she even feared the mayor might “raise” her water bill if he knew she was complaining to the press.
While Norwood does support the plant, his most recent Drax-related Facebook post on June 24 only speaks to the potential threat of fee increases should the plant close its doors.
“If by some chance a big lawsuit should happen and Drax decides to close it’s (sic) gates please be prepared for your utility rates to triple,” Norwood posted.
Politicians and the Mississippi Development Authority did all they could to convince executives at Drax Biomass to build a wood pellet plant in Gloster. The MDA began greasing the wheels of the underdeveloped local economy in 2012 to sustain construction. The Town of Gloster and Amite County even expanded local infrastructure for roads while Entergy Mississippi worked to route additional electricity to the factory site. After all that hard work, the facility now converts Mississippi forests and tree farms to tiny, efficient-burning pellets and then ships the processed fuel back to the company’s U.K. home to fuel its army of pellet-burning power plants. Drax touts wood pellets as a clean-burning alternative to dirty coal and fossil fuels, and they argue their biomass generators pull no new carbon from beneath the earth. Currently, their pellet plants supply 12 percent of Britain’s “renewable energy.”
Almost 10 years into production, however, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality hit the Gloster plant with the biggest fine for pollution in the state’s history. Many Mississippians weren’t even aware something was wrong.
“It didn’t get a lot of coverage in the state,” said Dogwood Alliance regional partnership engagement manager Erniko Brown, who worked with various environmental and African American organizations to alert the local populace to the threat. “You saw more news about it in (the U.K.) than here.”
The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality ordered plant owners to pay the state $2.5 million in 2020 for over-dumping hazardous volatile organic compounds (VOC) and they mandated the facility immediately scrub its manufacturing process and make upgrades to reduce pollution.
Volatile organic compounds are typically used as industrial solvents in the manufacture of paints, paint thinners, pharmaceuticals and refrigerants. The American Lung Association classifies many VOCs as carcinogenic. In addition to causing irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, they can damage the human nervous system and kill internal organs. The MDEQ permits the Drax facility to dump 249 tons of this category of chemical into the air around the facility every year, but the plant somehow managed to exceed that amount and triple it.
Drax Media Manager Selina Williams told The Lighthouse the plant is now thoroughly in compliance.
“We’ve installed the required equipment, and the plant is compliant with emissions standards. 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,” Williams said, while adding the company monitors “emissions regularly and report(s) (results) to the state environment agency.”
When asked if the company had discovered the emission problem on its own or through outside monitors, Williams said, “We reported ourselves to the MDEQ and then began the work to understand what we needed to do to fix the problem, invested in the necessary equipment and installed it.”
However, critics say the company initially denied the facts on their emissions during the permit process by falsely comparing the projected pollution to that of other, similar facilities that were also underreporting their own emissions.
“Drax claimed the engineering testing at Morehouse in Louisiana was representative of the Amite facility because both facilities were identical,” said Georgia Environmental attorney Patrick Anderson, who works with the Environmental Integrity Project. “This was actually true. They were essentially identical, but Morehouse was also misrepresenting their emissions. Morehouse was later penalized for emitting more than 1,000 tons of VOCs while only permitted to emit less than 250. In short, both facilities were emitting way more than permitted, and Drax claimed that ‘engineering testing’ from their Louisiana facility justified the emissions calculations for their MS plant.”
Anderson added that MDEQ, being a Mississippi agency, would not have had the authority to demand records about the Louisiana plant even if it had wanted to.
Gloster newspaper owner and operator Greg Adams said he has little faith in MDEQ’s ability to do their job. Earlier editions of his paper, the Wilk-Amite Record, reveal Adams initially supported the plant, but he later turned against the facility when reports of the pollution got out. Adams said the state agency was so compliant in allowing the infraction that he believes MDEQ may be “a captured agency” in the thrall of big moneyed polluters.
“Do we rely on MDEQ to let us know (if the company is now in full compliance), if there was a slap on the wrist or basically collusion at the onset? Shouldn’t there be an independent study?” Adams asked The Lighthouse.
Georgia attorney Keri Powell, of Powell Environmental Law, said the coalition had twice warned MDEQ that the company was deliberately understating its emissions and wasn’t even offering to install suitable VOC scrubbers in the plant in its MDEQ permit, so there was no reason to take company emission claims at face value at the time of its application.
Despite these blatant violations, the company filed a permit with MDEQ in 2019 to expand the facility further and ramp up production from 578,052 oven-dried tons of wood pellets to 771,392. Drax reps say the buildup will produce no extra pollution, but Brown said more wood processing will likely mean more poison. She added there is no reason to believe Drax representatives are any more honest now than they were the last time around.
“They lied and they’ll continue to lie. They don’t care about the people,” Brown said. “They care about their profit. They use these communities to get ahead, and these wood pellets aren’t even used by the community. They’re used in the U.K. and Europe, but they leave all the negative impact here. In fact, none of these people who work in these facilities are willing to live next to it.”
Williams countered that Drax does indeed hire within the community, however, and that the factory carries countless additional financial benefits for the region.
“Obviously we do directly employ people, including people from the local community. And there’s a wider benefit as well in terms of the supply chain. For example, you’ve got X amount of people working across those three (Drax) facilities, but you also have people involved in the supply chain … people working for log companies, truck drivers, people working the railroad, ports, logistics, all of these jobs are employed by the fact that we are there,” Williams told The Lighthouse.
Those financial benefits are precisely why Black community leaders keep inviting potential polluters. The money is good despite coming at a cost to African American health. The U.S. Census reports the city of Gloster is more than 80 percent Black. More than half the town’s residents also live below the poverty line. Drax owns two additional factories in Bastrop and Urania, La. Like the town of Gloster, Bastrop’s roughly 11,000 people are 80.5 percent Black and they also struggle with a 43 percent poverty rate. The town of Urania appears to be the only site of a Drax regional plant that is not majority Black and impoverished.
Critics say the high concentration of toxic factories in Black towns and neighborhoods has plenty to do with the nation’s habit of targeting Black and poor communities for poisoning. Redlining, the absence of political power and onerous disinvestment in Black communities make these communities desperate for jobs. This includes jobs that poison them. Politicians in poor communities put the priority on funding local schools and keeping roads paved, so they squabble among themselves for some of the most noxious offenders. Wealthy white communities, meanwhile, have the luxury of picking and choosing their neighbors. This disparity has made Black Americans 75 percent more likely than white Americans to live next to a polluting factory, according to a 2017 study.
Brown said Drax’ violation should not come as a surprise, given the nation’s history of targeting Black communities with pollution, but she pointed out that Black communities are often too distracted by daily problems to notice a massive poison dump in their backyard, even with a press release.
“These facilities are in Black communities because the African American day is spent figuring out how to take care of themselves and their families, and it hurts to know that they don’t have what they need in their communities,” Brown said. “The type of support and help they need and the ongoing disparities are continuing to work against them, and these facilities use that as a means to pimp their pain.”