Why Are Drax and Wood Pellet Production in Small-town Mississippi?

Gloster, Mississippi, a small town nestled in the southern part of the state, has become the epicenter of a growing environmental and public health crisis. The culprit? A wood pellet plant that had earned a well-deserved reputation for being a “bad neighbor.” Owned and operated by Drax, a U.K.-based energy corporation, the Gloster facility produces wood pellets that are shipped overseas to energy markets in Europe that are able to falsely claim them as a clean, renewable source. But for independent researchers and local residents, the plant also raises significant environmental justice and public health concerns here in the U.S.

Wood pellets are small, cylindrical pieces of compressed wood, often made from forest by-products, but increasingly, as demand for them has escalated, from entire mature trees. Nevertheless, they are still promoted by Drax, in a classic case of greenwashing, as a renewable energy source, However, the production process and its effects on local American communities and forest ecosystems tell a far different story. Residents of Gloster have voiced their worries about the wood pellet plant’s impact on their town, personal health, and surrounding environment. They have reported increased respiratory issues, concerns about air, soil, and water quality, unpleasant odors, and a sense of injustice as they bear the brunt of industrial pollution and environmental degradation.

Communities targeted by wood pellet industries for production facilities often lack the resources and political clout to fight back against industrial encroachment and degradation, igniting significant environmental justice issues. In Gloster, Mississippi, the wood pellet plant exemplifies this problem. The Drax operation is located right in the middle of town, including in some resident’s backyards, directly harming the lives of residents, many of whom are from low-income and marginalized backgrounds. This raises the question: why did a UK-based wood pellet company target a small town in Mississippi to open a noisy and polluting facility?

Noise pollution is not a trivial concern, but a notable issue of health and wellbeing for those in Gloster who must endure it. I spoke with Dr. Erica Walker, professor of epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health, who studies the noise pollution and environmental health impacts of Gloster’s wood pellet plant. Dr. Walker told me that the high decibel noise coming from the plant disrupts the daily lives and wellbeing of residents, particularly children, and scares away local wildlife. “This is a rural place, but it can be as loud as New York City. There’s no wildlife because it’s so loud.” As a result, children living near the plant have been found to exhibit high stress levels. The relentless noise not only increases stress, but also discourages children from going outside to play at all. Would anyone want to spend time outside if subjected to a persistent 60 decibel din? (Click here to hear the Drax facility]

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In addition to noise pollution, according to Dr. Brown, the wood pellet plant poses several other serious environmental health concerns. The production process releases a range of pollutants into the air, including particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds. These pollutants have severe health effects, increasing respiratory problems like asthma. Long-term exposure to these pollutants is also linked to cancer, cardiovascular problems, and other chronic health conditions. The fact that these health burdens fall mostly on the poor and Black communities of Gloster makes this an urgent public health and environmental justice crisis. It is a crisis that has given rise to serious investigative reporting about Drax and a growing movement of opposition to the U.K. corporation from local residents. But, as yet, no significant help or action has come from the federal government.

I share the question of many people about the wood pellet plant in Gloster, Mississippi and similar plants across the country. Why were foreign companies allowed to enter American communities and degrade their environment and health? How has Drax been allowed to pollute and degrade Gloster’s environment and public health for almost a decade without consequences? And, can wood pellet industries really be good neighbors in their respective communities as their corporate owners claim?

In 2023, Drax asserted they are “committed to helping Mississippi thrive” and “being a good neighbor.” And, recently, they launched a classic greenwashing ploy with a loudly touted beautification project for downtown Gloster while the wood pellet plant ground on. When we look at the facts, only the term “bad neighbor” is an appropriate term for Drax’s wood pellet plant in Gloster. For the local community, this industrial facility is more than just a noisy nuisance- it represents an ongoing threat to their health and quality of life.

If Drax wants to be a “good neighbor,” they need to come clean and take accountability for why they choose the small, rural town of Gloster, Mississippi to operate a wood pellet plant. Decorating the downtown and giving a recent $250,000 grant for educational and recreational outlets is simply putting a Band-aid on the serious wound to Gloster of long-term health effects and financial losses. If children are not even playing outside because the wood pellet plant is so loud, how does Drax plan to compensate for those lost childhood moments? If children in Gloster are stressed from the noise and pollution, they will surely struggle to concentrate in school, affecting their grades and future opportunities. How does Drax plan to compensate for long-term losses like these in the lives of young people?

The wood pellet plant in Gloster, Mississippi, serves as a stark reminder of the environmental justice and public health issues associated with wood pellet corporations. As Europe pushes for renewable energy feedstock in the form of wood pellets, it is crucial to consider the full impact of these industries on rural American communities, families, and individuals. As Dr. Erica Walker said, “Gloster residents are American citizens. That has to mean something.” Gloster has the right to be green. Gloster has the right to have clean air. Gloster has the right to be defended from a British biomass company.

RCC Stanback Presidential Fellow – Rachel Weaver

Rachel Weaver is a Master of Environmental Management student at Duke University from West Jefferson, North Carolina studying Terrestrial and Freshwater Ecosystems and Environmental Economics and Policy. At Duke, she currently serves as graduate research assistant and a member of the Secretariat for the Environmental Peacebuilding Association.