Longleaf Pine Trees

A longleaf pine tree, pictured at the Joseph Pines Preserve in Sussex County. They used to be common in southern Virginia but no longer are. Companies like Enviva burn U.S. trees into wood pellets, which power homes and business overseas in parts of Europe.

A longleaf pine tree, pictured at the Joseph Pines Preserve in Sussex County. They used to be common in southern Virginia. Companies like Enviva burn U.S. trees into wood pellets, which power homes and business overseas in parts of Europe.

When English settlers arrived to America in the late 16th century, old growth longleaf pine trees towering as tall as 100 feet covered up to 90 million acres of the southern U.S. These ramrod-straight trees made an ideal ship’s mast and, according to the University of Florida, many of the best specimens were cut down for use by the British navy. Others were slashed for “naval stores” — tar, pitch, rosin and turpentine — exported to England as early as 1608. Given that longleaf pines take 150 years to mature and grow for more than 300, those majestic forests are almost gone.

Today, in Virginia, the British are still effectively cutting the forests. Trees are being chopped into pellets, trucked to the port, dispatched across the Atlantic in container ships and burned in U.K. power plants.

Few people know this because the environmental travesty occurs in rural areas. And for what? So Europeans can tell themselves that Virginia trees are their “renewable biomass” and, therefore, better than burning coal. Apparently, burning Virginia trees and leaving a denuded landscape meets a European Union standard for carbon reduction.

Enviva Biomass, the world’s largest producer of wood pellets, has been expanding its operations all over the Southeast. One plant is being considered just below the Virginia line in rural Northampton County, N.C. At a hearing there last month, Enviva executives and industry supporters seemed to say all the right things: More trees are planted than are cut down; the Enviva plant supports scholarships, apprenticeships, school supply drives and 300 “direct and indirect jobs”; and the company’s air quality permit modification seemed to meet what the law requires.

Yet, most of those newly planted trees come in the form of “pine plantations,” comprised of rows upon rows of artificially fertilized, crop-like trees, where the undergrowth is controlled just like weeds on a tobacco farm and where biodiversity does not exist. “The pine forests are monocultures — they’re just one kind of tree,” says J.C. Woodley, a retired EPA environmental biologist who was raised in Northampton County. “They don’t store carbon in the manner that an old growth forest does.”

Of course, an old growth forest would take 30 to 40 years to regenerate and the landowners know that Enviva wants to cut the trees again faster than that. Environmentalists report that Enviva is cutting bottomland and coastal forests with wetland habitat, even though Enviva says it does not source wood from sensitive forests. But, really, who would know? Private landowners have significant rights to do what they want with their land, even though forests are needed to help protect us from unprecedented storms.

The Enviva location in Southampton County, Va., has many similarities to the other places where Enviva chops trees into wood pellets: a rural county where residents have poor health outcomes and life expectancy rates several percentage points below the Virginia and national averages. In this county, where 38% of residents are of color and 23% of those under 18 live in poverty, there’s little clout for attention to Enviva. The same could be true for the proposed Enviva operation near Danville.

Belinda Joyner, who leads Concerned Citizens of Northampton County, told regulators at last month’s hearing, “You don’t live here, so therefore you don’t have to be bothered with the noise. You don’t have to be bothered with the trucks” that grind their way to and from the Enviva plant seven days a week at all hours carrying logs or pellets. “You’re going to kill us at the same time . . . you’re giving our children a book bag.”

But here’s the bigger picture, the thing that astounds my friends who had no idea this “sustainability” perversion is going on: The only reason why cutting Virginia forests meets the EU standard for greenhouse gas emissions is because emissions are measured only at European power plants. What never gets added to that equation are the effects of the carbon storage that’s lost when trees are cut down, or the carbon emissions from the massive, hot pellet plants, the logging and pellet trucks or from container ships that transport trees across the Atlantic. Even worse, new studies find that burning wood pellets for fuel releases as much as, or even more, carbon dioxide per unit of energy than coal.

“The thing that’s disheartening to me is the scam,” Woodley added. “We’re emitting and they’re [U.K. power plants] at zero emissions, according to their calculations.”

Biomass supporters will respond to this piece and PR to every claim. But they cannot deny the big picture: In today’s climate crisis, it is nothing but absurd that, in the U.K. and Europe, Virginia trees are burned to power homes and businesses.

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Cindy Elmore is a journalism professor at East Carolina University and a former journalist who has reported from 18 different countries. She was raised in Hampton Roads. Contact her at elmorec@ecu.edu.

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