THE COMPANY THAT RUNS DRAX POWER STATION has agreed to pay out $3.2 million to settle air pollution claims against its wood pellet factories in the United States.

Documents obtained by Unearthed (Greenpeace’s investigative journalism team) show that late last month the company agreed two settlements of $1.6m apiece with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), to settle a string of claims against two of its wood pellet plants in the state.

The news comes as American critics of the company say Drax and the UK government, which subsidises Drax to the tune of £2 million a day, have driven “environmental racism” in the US by allowing communities of colour to be disproportionately exposed to pollution from Drax’s plants.

The settlement agreements centre on claims against two of the company’s pellet mills based in the small Louisiana communities of Bastrop and Urania which help supply the Drax Power Station in Yorkshire, England. The company agreed to pay $1.6 million last month to settle claims raised in 2019 at its Morehouse plant in Bastrop, including failure to comply with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) permitted emissions standards and exceeding emissions for other hazardous air pollutants such as Methanol, Formaldehyde and Acetaldehyde. This came alongside a further settlement  of  $1.6 million for claims against its LaSalle pellet plant in Urania, Louisiana. 

An analysis by Unearthed found that the settlements were the biggest the state’s environmental regulator had agreed in a decade. The company denies it committed any violations at its Louisiana plants and agreed to the settlement payments without admitting liability.

The settlements follow a $2.5 million fine issued to Drax’s pellet mill in Gloster, Mississippi, in 2020, after it was found to be emitting well over the legally permitted level of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs are a class of air pollutants linked to cancer, breathing difficulties, and other negative health effects.

Drax’s push for wood pellets in the US has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, with many questioning the impacts on vulnerable communities living near the plants. Both the Gloster and Bastrop pellet mills are sited next to majority-Black communities with high poverty rates. 

Unearthed spoke to Gloster residents who told of their health declining after Drax began operations in the town in 2014. Health issues ranged from breathing difficulties, requiring inhalers or oxygen tanks to experiencing dizzy spells, rashes, nosebleeds and occasional burning sensations and irritated eyes when standing outdoors.

Drax bills itself as the “the UK’s largest source of renewable electricity” and currently receives over  £2 million a day in direct UK government subsidies for green energy, according to an analysis of financial results by climate thinktank Ember.

Katherine Egland, a member of the directors’ board of the US National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), told Unearthed it was “very unfortunate” that Drax’s biomass use was“being billed as something great in one part of the world but is causing so much misery to people on the other side”.

“My message to the UK Government is that you are subsidising environmental racism, You are subsidising the harm of our planet. I understand that their intention was well meaning… And I would send an invitation to the UK Government to come to the US and go to some of these communities where these plants are operating. It is not a safe environment. It is very harmful to these communities.”

Commenting on the findings, Greenpeace UK’s policy director Dr Doug Parr, said: “For all Drax’s appeals that biomass is clean renewable energy, the reality on the ground leaves that claim ringing hollow. Toxic fumes from its wood-chopping plants are impacting poor, marginalised communities living nearby, and Drax doesn’t seem to be in a rush to fix the problem. It’s scandalous that this polluting industry is being bankrolled by EU and UK taxpayers to the tune of millions of pounds a year.

“Public money would be better spent protecting and restoring our natural world and enhancing carbon sinks in the UK and overseas. Alongside that we should be reaching for a system based on genuinely clean and low carbon energy such as wind and solar whilst also boosting energy saving measures like insulating homes.”

* Read the full report from Unearthed here.

* Source: Greenpeace UK