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Environmental concerns grow over Drax air quality permit for Longview plant

By Caleb Barber, The Daily News
Published: March 18, 2024, 8:23am

LONGVIEW — Environmental and public health concerns over the proposed Drax wood pellet factory are prompting the Southwest Clean Air Agency to hold a public hearing before approving the company’s air discharge permit.

Public hearings aren’t initiated for every permit, which sets caps on how much pollution can be emitted, only for applications where the agency determines there is enough public interest, Southwest Clean Air Agency engineer Danny Phipps said.

The permit states emissions should not exceed 44.02 tons of hazardous air pollutants per year

A number of Longview residents and environmental justice nonprofits have submitted letters to the SWCAA, calling for a more comprehensive review of the proposed site’s air quality control measures.

The plant would be built along the Columbia River at the Port of Longview. The company broke ground at the 48-acre site, purchased from Pacific Lumber and Shipping, in July 2023.

In her letter, Kristen Boyles, a managing attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, noted that the company did not include in its application a case-by-case maximum achievable control technology analysis.

The standard, known as MACT, requires the maximum degree of reduction in emissions of hazardous air pollutants taking into consideration costs and any non-air quality health and environmental impacts and energy requirements.

Drax employs such a process at its wood pellet plants in Mississippi and Alabama.

The Clean Air Act requires industrial facilities that don’t fit neatly into one descriptive category to do a case-by-case MACT analysis to determine if there are any ways to reduce or capture the emissions created by the plant.

These methods could take the form of additional air purifiers or filters, Boyles said, with the goal being to capture as many emissions as possible before they enter the atmosphere.

Drax plants in the Southeast, including plants in Mississippi and Alabama, have either already or are currently in the process of conducting MACT analyses, and Boyles said that this practice should be adopted at the local plant as well.

Because Drax plants in the South have already been fined for violating air pollution rules, Boyles said it is pertinent that this analysis be conducted in Longview too.

“Community members are already concerned that Drax is commencing construction without the required permits, and review of an unquestionably invalid permit will only affirm suspicions of an unfair process,” Boyles wrote.

The Lower Columbia Stewardship Community, a group of environmental activists, also has signaled its disapproval of the Drax application. In its monthly newsletter, the group was critical of the company’s claim that burning wood on a large scale was carbon-neutral.

The organization also doubts that enough feedstock would be available for the Drax plant without impacting other consumers of the wood products. Drax did not state in its original application from where it would source its feedstock.

The Southwest Clean Air Agency cannot deny a permit based on emissions data it is not authorized to regulate, such as state Environmental Policy Act rules, which focus on impacts to ecosystems and human-nature interactions

The hearing on Drax’s air discharge permit is set for 6 p.m. Thursday, March 28, at the Cowlitz Public Utility District office at 961 12th Ave.