Environmental Injustice Along the Cape Fear River

Recently, I was aboard a riverboat cruise on the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, North Carolina. Like many riverboat cruises, the trip featured scenic views of coastline vegetation, a bustling downtown, and the lively company of eager guests. Unlike most cruises, the purpose of the trip was not to unwind, relax, and enjoy some views. The Rachel Carson Council sponsored and had me lead this trip for a different reason: to expose the destructive impact of the wood pellet industry on North Carolina’s coast and forests.

One of the most powerful ways of educating people about environmental crises is by showing them the effects in their backyard. That’s why we crowded onto the Henrietta, Wilmington’s formidable 65-person capacity riverboat, to show people firsthand what wood pellets were doing to their coastal ecosystem, forested lands, and the local community.

As we cruised on, identifying massive wood pellet domes and processing plants along the Cape Fear river, I walked our participants through the RCC’s pioneering efforts to expose and combat the influence of the biomass industry, a carbon-intensive, environmentally destructive, false climate solution.

After distributing excerpts from RCC’s groundbreaking reports, Clear Cut: Wood Pellet Production, the Destruction of Forests, and the Case for Environmental Justice, and Bad Business: The Economic Case Against Woody Biomass as Renewable Energy that show the harmful health effects of pellet production, especially on minority communities, and the tax credits and subsidies that keep wood pellets profitable, I carefully explained why there is still some support for biomass energy among large, established environmental groups, and why most of the determined and increasingly effective opposition has come from local and regional groups in the South with relatively little involvement from national organizations.

I was proud to demonstrate why the RCC, with its deep commitment to environmental justice and health and its previous work against CAFOs and pipelines in North Carolina, had taken the lead among national groups to join with the Dogwood Alliance, the Southern Environmental Law Center, and others to expose and undermine the lies and greenwashing of corporations like Enviva, the main producer of industrial-scale wood pellets in North Carolina and the Southeast.

It is this principled adherence to environmental justice and the ethos of Rachel Carson that has led to RCC’s published research and our participation in the founding of the Southern Forests Conservation Coalition (SFCC) that includes affected minority communities, forest landowners, and local chapters of groups like the Sierra Club. It is why I eagerly accepted the assignment to help organize and publicize the Cape Fear Riverboat Cruise, and to produce stinging social media campaigns challenging Enviva’s misrepresentations. It is why, I told those aboard the Henrietta, the RCC continues to present testimony and public comments against industry expansion, why we work steadily with North Carolina legislators, and why we have one of our best RCC Fellows, Joy Reeves, of Duke University, researching, writing, and publicly advocating against wood pellets. It is also why all 15 campuses in North Carolina that are part of the RCC Campus Network (RCCN) are alerted and activated on this issue.

For example, one of the RCC’s key contacts at the University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG), Associate Professor Etsuko Kinefuchi, mobilized an eager group of her undergraduate and graduate students from UNCG’s Department of Geography, Environment, and Sustainability to drive with her in a van across the state to join us on board the Cape Fear River Cruise. At the tour’s conclusion, a number of UNCG students came up to me to inquire about getting more deeply involved in our wood pellet campaign and how to possibly win an RCC Fellowship.

On board, other members of the SFCC spoke, including leading conservation biologist, Andy Wood. Wood laid out in colorful detail the dangers to local biodiversity of the wood pellet industry’s construction and pollution, including the extirpation (complete loss of wild populations) of the Magnificent Ramshorn Snail and the degradation of the Cape Fear’s iconic Cypress trees.

In addition, I was happy to also give the floor to local advocates, including representatives from the Sierra Club North Carolina Chapter and affected Wilmington residents. They discussed in poignant detail the burden of constant noise pollution, health hazards, and community disruption posed by the Enviva facilities surrounding them.

We have learned from growing climate communications studies that it is essential to bring the abstractions, science, and policy controversies surrounding climate change and pollution down to the personal and human level, to hear from those who are affected and otherwise invisible and without voice. That is also the essence of effective organizing – especially organizing for environmental justice. That is why, I believe, that in our diversity, those of us on board who were able to bring together and speak to people from across North Carolina — many of whom had never even heard about wood pellets — sparked serious interest in local and national resistance to the destructive wood pellet industry.

— Claudia Steiner

Claudia Steiner, Assistant Director of Communications and Development

A tireless environmental advocate, Claudia Steiner serves as the Assistant Director for Communications and Strategic Development at the Rachel Carson Council. She is a magna cum laude graduate of American University where she studied International Studies and Environmental Science. As an undergraduate, Claudia was instrumental in the university’s student-led divestment movement to secure full divestment from the fossil fuel industry.