UK-based power station operator Drax is breaching legal limits for hazardous air pollutants at its wood pellet mill in Gloster, Mississippi – and the state’s environmental regular has knowingly withheld this information from the public – alleged local community leaders and environmental justice organisations in a press release at the end of May. US non-profit the Environmental Integrity Project uncovered the violation via a Freedom of Information request, it notes. It comes despite Drax being fined $2.5m in 2021 for exceeding air permit limits at the same site.

More than 200 residents of Gloster, an environmental justice designated community, attended a 9 May community forum and site visit organised by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), US Department of Agriculture and Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to discuss concerns related to the Drax plant. Drax declined to attend the forum.

During it, MDEQ representatives were present and the agency was aware that the Drax facility had been exceeding air toxics and hazardous air pollution limits for at least two years, the press release states. However, the violation was not disclosed to the public by any of the agencies present. It was only through a Freedom of Information Act request that it came to light.

The failure of the MDEQ to disclose the violation and share the information with the community has drawn criticism from impacted community leaders. Kathy Egland of the Education, Economics, Environmental, Climate and Health Organization expressed outrage, stating: “It is disingenuous for MDEQ to not inform the people they have been entrusted to protect that they have been exposed to illegal levels of toxic pollution and shows just whose interests they represent.”

The pollution in Gloster is an example of the environmental challenges associated with the US wood pellet industry. Similar concerns have been raised regarding noise and air pollution in North Carolina, as well as air quality violations in Georgia and Louisiana. Environmental activists and leaders are now urging the EPA to regulate these industrial wood pellet facilities, not just in Amite County, Mississippi but across the entire US South, in line with President Joe Biden’s recent executive order on environmental justice.

The health impacts of the air pollution caused by Drax are a cause for alarm, said Matt Williams, a campaigner for Cut Carbon Not Forests and senior advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a press statement. He warned of the potential damage to organs and the increased risk of cancer due to the type of pollution being released into fenceline communities. Williams criticised the relatively small fines imposed on Drax so far, considering the substantial subsidies the company receives each year, and called for an end to burning trees in power stations.

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The Mississippi revelation comes as UK electricity market regulator Ofgem begins a formal investigation into the green credentials of Drax’s North Yorkshire plant in the UK.