ROCKINGHAM — Richmond County commissioners have been asking frequently about the status of a wood pellet plant that first announced it was coming to the area in late 2014.
But there’s one group of residents who doesn’t want it at all.
Members of Concerned Citizens of Richmond County, along with the Dogwood Alliance, held a press conference in front of the county administration building an hour before the banging of the gavel to start the commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday afternoon.
The group had come to last month’s meeting to voice concerns about the Enviva plant, but were denied because of the county’s public comment policy, which states that speakers must sign up with the the board’s clerk the Friday prior to the monthly meeting.
Kim McCall, secretary of the group, said she and Debra David attempted to do so this month, but were again denied because Enviva was on the agenda. The public comment policy — which county officials said has been in place since 1997 — also does not allow for comment for an item on the agenda.
McCall calls not being allowed to speak an “injustice.”
“None of this makes any sense, and I’m not even going to go there about how I personally feel, because it’s bigger,” she said. “Also, we want to try and get a moratorium…for people here to have a chance so we can find out about the health and environmental issues that are…unknown here.”
She said the group, affiliated with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, was formed three years ago with concerns over pollution from Duke Energy and said they were denied access then.
“All we want to do is have a voice,” she said. “And when we follow suit and do what we’re supposed to do we’re still denied. And that’s the injustice. Everyone should have an opportunity to voice their opinion and know about the things that are going on in our community.”
Pastor Cary Rodgers, another member of the organization, said CCRC is concerned not only with pollution and particulate matter in the air, but also the increase in traffic and noise.
He added that the part of the policy forbidding comment on agenda items “makes no sense.”
“That is systematic, institutional suppression of voices,” he said. “I can’t speak up if Enviva is actually on the agenda? I have no right to say anything against it? That is un-American. And this particular policy should be concerning for every citizen in this county, in which you have no right to speak up when something directly affects you.
“You are not the kings of this county,” he continued. “You have citizens that pay taxes and have a right for health, for clean water and clean air. And this particular plant, Enviva, is part of an accumulation of environmental issues.”
County Manager Rick Sago said Enviva has been on the agenda at least six times since 2013.
“This project has not been kept a secret,” he said. “I can’t help it that this group wasn’t staying informed.”
Sago added that the 20-year-old policy has “seemed to work fine” since it was enacted.
“Until this group began complaining, no one seemed to have an issue,” he said. “We operate in complete openness and rarely go into closed session, even though economic development is one of the items that the (board) can go into closed session to discuss. We hold the public hearings and review the incentive agreements in an open meeting instead of closed sessions. Not all elected boards operate in this way.”
Emily Zucchino, a campaign organizer with Asheville-based Dogwood Alliance, said she has worked with community members at every Enviva plant in the state.
“The residents living by these plants tell me they have seen not one single positive impact from these plants,” she said. “Instead, they have suffered from dust and noise pollution, health problems, increased logging, dangerous truck traffic and have seen no economic benefits.”
Zucchino added that the wood pellet industry is so new that the environment impacts aren’t known, and said science is showing that it is not green energy — and worse than fossil fuels.
She said the information wasn’t known when the plant was first announced, but now that it’s out there, CCRC is organizing to try to stop the plant.
Following the press conference, members of the group went inside and sat through the meeting, holding up their signs while Rob McCulloch, public affairs and community relations manager for the Maryland-based manufacturer, got up to give commissioners an update on the plant, which is expected to be operational by the end of next year.
After the meeting, McCulloch explained that what is seen coming from the stacks of the company’s other plants is actually steam from the heating of the wood.
“Sometimes there are small amounts of…wood, but it’s always well within state environmental quality requirements,” he said. “Our ideal would be that it would be zero…We’re a culture of continuous improvement, and anything we can do to get close to that zero level, we’re going to invest money in.”
McCulloch added that the company has taken steps to reduce dust and particulates following concerns at a terminal in Florida.
He also said Enviva wants to work with anyone who has concerns about the business.
“We want to work with them,” he said. “We want to work with elected officials, with the citizens, with the residents. Because we think by being open and transparent and providing information, working with each other, we can overcome a lot of the misperceptions. And we welcome them to join the conversation, as well, because I think it would address a lot of concerns.”
He said while the Dogwood Alliance has been “vocal” regarding a lot of Enviva’s plants and their “hearts are in the right place,” they’re not working with all the facts.
“I think when you bring those facts to light,” he concluded, “you can make a lot of progress.”