A U.K.-based energy giant is facing scrutiny as residents of the 897-person town of Gloster, Mississippi, are blaming the company for flooding their community with hazardous air pollutants.
At the end of July, concerned residents had scheduled a meeting with Drax Group, which owns and operates a wood pellet production plant in Gloster, to present a list of demands – including the installation of air quality monitors and abiding by the town’s noise ordinance. But as had happened in the month prior, officials from Drax canceled at the last minute due to a “scheduling conflict.”
Drax originally opened shop in Mississippi in 2016, leading a long list of European companies who have chosen the southeastern U.S. to produce wood pellets made from trees. According to those in the industry, wood pellets are an eco-friendlier alternative to burning coal, but environmental activists have contended that burning wood pellets are worse than fossil fuels, releasing 65 percent more CO2 than coal.
In the seven years since Drax inserted itself into the small Mississippi community, residents have repeatedly voiced concerns with what they say is a negative impact on the air quality and the overall health of those who live in the community. As reported by NBC News, residents have also blamed the company for not hiring locals after promising to do so when initial construction plans were announced in 2013.
Michelli Martin, who works as the U.S. communications director for Drax, has denied such claims and maintained that the company is not ignoring residents’ concerns.
“Drax is committed to maintaining and building strong relationships with the entire Gloster community,” Martin said, adding that a third of Drax’s wages in Mississippi were paid to people living in Amite County. “The meeting was not a community-wide forum as has been reported by some media outlets but one with a small group and members of Drax leadership. Unfortunately, it had to be canceled due to a conflict, but we are working to reschedule it as we want to make sure Drax leadership can hear any concerns of our neighbors.”
Residents are not the only ones concerned with emissions from Drax’s Gloster plant; In 2020, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) fined the company from Selby, U.K., $2.5 million for releasing more volatile organic compounds into the air than its permit allowed.
Then, in March 2023, MDEQ issued another notice to Drax – which is operating with a minor source polluter permit – notifying the company that it had been exceeding the legal limit of hazardous air pollutants for the past year.
MDEQ executive director Chris Wells clarified to SuperTalk Mississippi News that the agency’s qualm with Drax is not the same as the Gloster community’s. However, both sides have validity as “public health trumps economic development.”
“The problem we have with the company is that they came in and asked for a minor source permit. They have failed to comply with those limits,” Wells said over the phone. “They have exceeded their permit limits, which is not a good thing. We don’t tolerate it, and we have taken enforcement against the facility more than once.”
While Wells did note that MDEQ has heard complaints from concerned citizens, the agency head said there has been no substantiated evidence presented at this time to link the facility’s emissions with any health issues residents are claiming to have experienced.
“There’s a logical connection that’s been made by some in the community between the fact that the company exceeded medical conditions – whatever those conditions are,” Wells said. “They’re assuming that, because of the exceedances, that’s causing their medical conditions. At this point, there’s been no connection between medical conditions and emissions from the facility.”
As Gloster residents await a new meeting date with officials from Drax, the MDEQ is in discussions with the company regarding what rules it violated and what punishments will be levied as a result. Drax has also requested a modification to its permit, which if granted, means it could maintain its current levels of emissions legally.
According to Wells, had Drax initially applied as a major pollutant, the wood pellet producer would not have exceeded any regulatory emission limits at this point. If MDEQ officials do choose to grant Drax a higher-level permit, the company will be held to stricter regulations, per the Clean Air Act.
If the two parties fail to reach an agreement on sanctions and permits, Wells said MDEQ will be inclined to deliver harsher penalties which could include another fine of millions and even revocation of the company’s current minor permit.
Wells, in the meantime, is welcoming an international environmental activist group called Dogwood Alliance to submit toxicological and epidemiological studies showing a correlation between the facility and spikes in illnesses in the area. If Dogwood – which is known as one of Drax’s biggest critics – presents substantial evidence, Wells said the MDEQ will take appropriate measures to further ensure clean air quality in Gloster.