Domes are used to store wood pellets at the Port of Baton Rouge that come in from plants in Louisiana and Mississippi for export to Britain as a fuel source.

An environmental group is taking aim at the wood pellet industry and in the process asking state officials to take steps to better regulate two manufacturing facilities in Bastrop and Urania that export product through the Port of Greater Baton Rouge to Britain.

In Britain, the wood pellets are smashed into sawdust and burned as fuel for power plants, instead of coal.

The Environmental Integrity Project disputes claims from the biomass industry and U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that burning wood pellets to generate electricity is carbon neutral, and said even plants like Drax Group’s Louisiana operations create air pollution in manufacturing the pellets.

“The records show that the biomass industry releases not only millions of tons of greenhouse gases, but also tons of soot particles that can trigger asthma and heart attacks, as well as carcinogens and smog-forming pollutants,” said Patrick Anderson, who co-wrote the EIP report that was released Thursday about the industry.

Drax, a British company, operates three wood pellet-producing plants in the U.S.: the Louisiana operations and one in Gloster, Mississippi. The company said Thursday in response to the EIP report that it complies with all federal and state requirements.

The plants take in low-quality trees and shred the soft pine down to wood pellets. The pellets are trucked to the Baton Rouge port and stored in large domes until they are transferred to the United Kingdom. 

Power from pellets Drax facilities boost timber industry in Louisiana and Mississippi, port in Baton Rouge

According to the EIP report, the Drax plant in Bastrop is classified as a “minor” emissions source of volatile organic compounds, which interact with sunlight to produce ground-level ozone, the primary ingredient in smog. The permit prohibits the plant from releasing more than 250 tons per year of volatile organic compounds.

Right now, the EIP said the Bastrop plant is producing 249.21 tons of emissions per year, so even a small error would bump the facility beyond its limit. The organization said that the state has never required Drax to test the emissions coming from the units used to cool off the pellets.

Drax has said the coolers at the Bastrop plant produce 20 tons a year of emissions. But the EIP report said coolers at similar facilities alone put out more than 400 tons of volatile organic compounds. The organization said the state needs to better test emissions to make sure the plant is in compliance.

“Without adequate testing, it is hard to believe that Drax’s self-reported emission rate, which is 10 to 25 times lower than similar facilities, is trustworthy,” the report said. “Louisiana must require that Drax Morehouse (Bastrop) conduct legitimate emissions testing for VOC emissions from its pellet coolers. Louisiana should further revise Drax Morehouse’s permit to make such testing a regular requirement, like the permit currently requires for the rest of the emission units.”

In a statement, Drax officials said the reason for the different results on emissions from different wood pellet plants had to do with differing measurement protocols and different processes and feedstocks used in production.

“The nature of the report and its contents do not reflect the actions made by Drax Biomass. Drax Biomass has and will continue to comply with all federal and state requirements,” said Michael Bellows, director of safety and environmental for Drax. “This has included the use of independent third-party environmental testing and measuring and the use of independent third-party laboratories.”

Officials with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality said they are reviewing a letter EIP and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and other groups sent to Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday discussing the report. The DEQ declined to comment further, noting the permit for the Morehouse facility is up for renewal and the period for public comment on its license is open until May 15. 

Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.