Wood Pellet Company Polluting East Texas at 10x Permitted Rate

German Pellets

Photo: DW.com

This week, Environmental Integrity Project, Our Children’s Earth, and the Sierra Club began the process of appealing a proposed air pollution permit for the German Pellets wood pellet mill in Woodville, 90 miles northeast of Houston, that would authorize a massive increase in allowable air pollution. The groups are asking the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to require pollution controls at German Pellets that are common in neighboring states and would greatly reduce smog-forming pollution emitted from the plant.

The German Pellets facility consumes more than a million tons of trees per year to produce wood pellets, which are shipped to Europe, where they are burned for electricity under the false premise that doing so is carbon neutral. The facility also emits tons of unlawful air pollution right here in Texas.

When German Pellets decided to build its wood pellet manufacturing facility in Woodville in 2012, TCEQ required the facility to limit emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to 64 tons per year. It turns out, however, the facility actually emits 580 tons per year, nearly ten-times more than allowed. VOCs are air pollutants that combine with sunlight to produce ground-level ozone. Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems, particularly for children, the elderly, and people of all ages who have lung diseases such as asthma.

The VOC emissions from the Woodville mill also contain particularly hazardous air pollutants like methanol, formaldehyde, and acetaldehyde. EPA considers these pollutants either probable human carcinogens or capable of causing acute respiratory and neurological conditions.

TCEQ: More Pollution Is Okay 

German Pellets and TCEQ have been aware of the fact that the facility was violating its limits on VOCs since at least 2014, but took little action. Unfortunately, now TCEQ proposes to issue a permit that simply raises the VOC limit to levels that German Pellets can comply with, rather than requiring any reduction in emissions. 

Under the Clean Air Act, TCEQ must require that German Pellets install the best available control technology on each source of air pollution. Unfortunately, TCEQ bafflingly selected no new control technology at all. This is highly problematic, as many nearly-identical wood pellet plants in neighboring states use technology to greatly reduce VOC emissions from the relevant equipment. If TCEQ required the same controls that Georgia has, for instance, German Pellets would emit less than 100 tons per year of VOCs.

What We’re Challenging 

The permit we’re challenging relates to an application German Pellets filed back in September 2016. Basically, in 2014 German Pellets conducted a “confidential and privileged audit” and discovered that they were emitting 580 tons per year rather than 64 tons per year (as mentioned above). As a result of that, they triggered the more stringent major source Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permitting, which is what they finally applied for in 2016. TCEQ did not release the proposed PSD permit until November 2017, which is what we’re contesting now.

Silo collapse at German Pellets

Photo: Giusseppe Barranco, Beaumont Enterprise

Out Of Order 

The facility is not in operation currently, supposedly stemming from a storage silo fire last year that burned for two months, causing breathing problems for residents in nearby Port Arthur. A worker was also killed last year at the facility, and the company is bankrupt and most likely trying to sell the facility. However, they still have a valid pre-existing permit that allows them to restart operations at any point. And that permit does limit them to 64 tons per year, but under Texas law, they can continue to emit 580 tons per year because of the “confidential and privileged audit” system. Why is that? They’re basically immune from repercussions for the violations, other than needing to apply for the PSD permit.

Whatever the future holds for this monument to Europe’s climate sins, the people of Texas will continue to demand clean air and refuse to be a sacrifice zone for other areas of the world.