By Chris Edwards
WOODVILLE – State Representative James White welcomed personnel from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and attorneys from two agencies, The Environmental Integrity Project and Lone Star Legal Aid, to Woodville for a public meeting last Thursday at the Wheat Elementary auditorium.
The focus of the event was to present information to the public about Woodville Pellets (formerly German Pellets). The meeting was originally called by a group of residents who live near the facility, located south of Woodville. White brought TCEQ in to present its findings.
Some residents who have expressed concerns about the facility claim that their frequent illnesses and/or respiratory issues are caused by its emissions.
Some of the concerns have also involved alleged illegal emissions. An informational flyer promoting the meeting cited routine bypassing of air pollution controls “causing harmful emissions impacting our community.”
Sarah Kirksey, who works as the air section manager of the Beaumont regional office for TCEQ was the first to speak and addressed the topic of emissions and the stacks at the facility.
The stacks, Kirksey said are authorized for the site, however they are not authorized for emissions.
“The boiler stacks and the furnace stacks do not have authorizations for emissions during normal operations,” she said.
Kirksey said there might be cases and times when the facility is undergoing maintenance or upset conditions when emissions may come from the stacks.
“If it’s a reportable emission event, the facility is required to report it to TCEQ within 24 hours,” Kirksey said. Kirksey outlined the process by which citizens can file complaints with the agency, and how investigations are conducted.
The plant converts trees into wood pellets, which are shipped to Europe and the Pacific Rim to be burned to produce electricity. As the demand for sustainable, economical fuel sources grows, such facilities as Woodville Pellets are a growing industry. The Woodville plant first went into production in 2013 under the name German Pellets. It was acquired in 2019 by European-based biomass firm Graanul Invest. It is currently at full production and produces 450,000 metric tons of pellets per year.
In a report from the Environmental Integrity Project titled “Dirty Deception: How the Wood Biomass Industry Skirts the Clean Air Act,” published in April 2018, the findings on the facility at the time reported that it was emitting nearly 10 times its permitted limits of volatile organic compound pollution since going on-line in 2013. The report stated 580 tons per year. At present, Woodville Pellets has an 18-month window, which began last April, to construct a thermal oxidizer, which is a unit designed to control pollution by decomposing hazardous gases at a high temperature before releasing them into the atmosphere.
Patrick Anderson, an attorney who works for the EIP, and worked on the aforementioned report, spoke at the meeting, and outlined the process of constructing the required device. He also spoke about some of the previous troubles the plant had run into under the old ownership, namely with fires. Within the wood pellet industry, fires are common, he said, as the wood dust is highly combustible.
A statement on the Concerned Citizens of Tyler County Facebook page posted after the meeting acknowledged the pollution controls being put into place. “It’s important to note that no one is trying to shut Woodville Pellets down. We do, however, expect our neighbors in industry to comply with the best practices and standards,” the statement read. The group, which primarily focuses on environmental issues in the county, was initially hosting and promoting the meeting.
There were no representatives from Woodville Pellets present at the meeting, but in the prior week, the Booster was able to tour the facility and obtain information and statements from representatives about the process used to produce the pellets. In a coming issue, an in-depth report will be published about the plant and its process.
According to plant personnel, there are no chemicals used in the process. The plant’s environmental officer Sarah Stephens said the emissions are clean and welcomed the public to come and tour the facility and said she would be glad to answer any questions via telephone.
One audience member who provided some comments was Woodville businessman Lonnie Grissom. Grissom, who previously owned the chip mill that once operated on the land the plant now occupies, emphasized the new ownership aspect of the plant. “They hold themselves to a higher standard,” Grissom said. “They’re not here to destroy your community,” he added.
Grissom, whose company supplies raw material to the plant, also explained the quality of material the plant uses, a higher grade of wood than what the previous owners used.
In his closing remarks, White summarized some of the backstory with the plant, and said that going forward, the new owners are pursuing “the best available technology” to run it. “We can have jobs without dying,” White said.