Federation Leads Push for Review of Wood Pellet Plan

Scott Saylor

Thomas Bradshaw

Eugene Conti

MOREHEAD CITY — The N.C. State Ports Authority’s plans to build a multi-million wood pellet storage facility at its port here has prompted a push for the authority to conduct a thorough environmental review with public input before moving forward.

The Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill on behalf of the N.C. Coastal Federation and the Clean County Coalition sent a letter Tuesday to Tom Bradshaw, the Ports Authority executive director,  asking for the review under the state’s Environmental Policy Act.

The Clean County Coalition is a local grassroots group that last year led the successful fight against a proposed sulfur smelter at the port.

The letter was also sent to N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Eugene Conti and N.C. Railroad Co. President Scott Saylor.

Bradshaw is urging the state-owned railroad company to pledge up to $7 million a year over the next 10 years to help build the storage facility, where wood pellets would be shipped to European electric utilities by January 2014, according to a report in the Raleigh News & Observer.

The pellets would be made from trees from forests in Eastern North Carolina. Advocates say the project would boost an industry and create least 200 jobs.

The first phase of the project is to build a facility that will hold 1 million tons a year, according to a July draft report that maps out a preliminary design of the proposed project.

Shannon Moody, Ports Authority communications director said the authority is “in receipt of the letter and it is currently under review.”

Her counterpart at DOT, Greer Beaty, said the letter is in the hands of the department’s legal counsel. “We respond to every public records request we receive,” she said.

Construction of the facility would quadruple freight rail traffic through Morehead City. That prospect along with the increasing cutting of the region’s woodlands requires a thorough environmental review before proceeding, said Todd Miller, the federation’s executive director.

“As a state agency spending public money on public land on a project that has this potential significant impact we believe they must comply with SEPA,” he said. “As part of the letter we’re verifying whether they’ve met the public notice requirements. We haven’t seen any.

“We don’t want the same thing to happen here that happened with the international port,” Miller said.

That proposed project in Brunswick County eventually died from lack of support following staunch opposition from locals, environmental groups and politicians, but not before the authority invested $30 million in 600 acres of land.

“The ports authority basically tied up and wasted $30 million by moving so quickly on land that is now not nearly anywhere worth what they paid for it,” Miller said. “They did it quickly without any real discussion or public analysis.”

The authority has had discussions with the public about potential plans to grow business, Beaty said.

“The project itself, I think that the ports have answered questions from the public and individuals about looking at ways to enhance and strengthen the ports business and clientele sector,” she said. “They’re in the process of developing a strategic plan. That plan is certainly going to help shape what they do in the future.”

European utility companies are converting their coal-fired power plants to run on wood pellets about the diameter of a pencil.

The Morehead City port could receive up to 450 wood pellet shipments a year by rail, state Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco recently told railroad board members.

Miller said that amount of rail traffic would essentially create a “moving wall” through Morehead City.

“It is a major change to the port and, from our understanding, it would be a significant new facility,” said Geoff Gisler, an attorney with the law center. “If you’re going to increase train traffic as much as what was suggested in that article, you’re going to have a big building.”

The authority has not publicly discussed designs for a storage facility. Those plans should be introduced to the public, Gisler said.

“One of the things that we’re consistently trying to do is get the public insight into what’s going on,” he said. “We’re sending this letter is to bring the public in and to let the public know what’s going on. That’s what this is all about is opening the process to the public.”

Not much is known about the project or how it might affect Morehead City, noted Richard Bierly, the president of the Clean County Coalition. Residents and business owners are worried about drastically increasing train traffic along the one, street-level track through the middle of downtown.

“How much noise will that create? What will it do to traffic? How would tourists react?” Bierly said. “Those are the types of questions we need answered before we can adequately assess this project. The review that the law requires would begin to provide those answers. It seems to me that asking these state agencies to follow the law is not an unreasonable request. ”

The push to build a storage facility in the state is a result of an overall increase in wood pellet exports from the U.S.  Wood is considered a “biofuel” and is thought to release less carbon dioxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, when burned than an equivalent amount of coal, though several recent studies question that claim. European power companies, however, are increasingly looking to forests in the Southeast to provide wood pellets to replace coal. More than 1.5 million tons of pellets, mostly from Southern states, were shipped from the United States to Europe this year. That number is expected to reach 5.7million tons in three years.

About the Author

Trista Talton

Trista Talton is a native North Carolinian who, shortly after graduating from Appalachian State University in 1996, took her first newspaper job as a reporter for the Hickory Daily Record. She has since migrated to the coast, covering everything from education and local governments to law enforcement, the environment and the military, including an embed with Marines in Kuwait for the start of the Iraq war in 2003. She has been a Coastal Review Online contributing writer since 2011 focusing on coastal-related issues from Onslow to Brunswick counties. She lives with her husband and two sons in Jacksonville.