Robeson County facility seeks new air permit even as state records detail a long trail of failures as fines
Tens of thousands of dollars in fines. Dozens of violations. Millions of tons of air pollutants.
North Carolina Renewable Power in Robeson County was supposed to be part of the solution for Duke Energy to meet its renewable energy goals. Instead, over the past seven years, the facility, which burns virgin wood and poultry waste, has sputtered, shut down, and restarted, only to repeatedly violate its state air permit, according to state records.
“This facility is a bad actor,” Katie Moore, a citizen advocate who works on issues of air pollution and environmental justice, told state officials at a public hearing for the facility’s proposed permit changes. “It would retroactively authorize illegal emissions and allow them to continue.”
The facility has already emitted more than 49,000 tons of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, state records show. And from 2016 to 2020, NCRP emitted another 5,100 tons of pollutants. The company’s application to modify its permit would increase emissions, including those for greenhouse gases, which could exceed 438,000 tons per year. These increases would qualify NCPR as a major pollution source, also known as a Title V facility.
NCRP is located in a predominantly Native American, Black and Latinx community in Lumberton. The census block that includes NCRP has among the state’s top percentile of residents living next to pollution and toxic sources. The facility is adjacent to Active Energy Renewable Power, which is not currently operating, but also has a history of environmental violations, making this polluted corner of Lumberton what environmental advocates call a “sacrifice zone.”
According to state records, the facility often didn’t keep proper records and failed to consistently monitor its emissions. “We have no idea what they are truly emitting,” Moore said. “This is all of the things that you could do as a facility to skirt regulations. It’s rare and concerning to see them all happening at a single facility.”
An EPA database shows that from July 2020 to June 2021, NCPR incurred “high priority violations” of the Clean Air Act. These violations involved nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and visible emissions.
And the current permit application would not account for daily spikes in air pollution, said the Rev. Mac Legerton, a member of several environmental groups in Robeson County.
The origins of NCRP’s fuel choices are in Senate Bill 3, the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, passed by the legislature in 2007. The NCPR site used to be a coal plant, but has since been converted to other “renewable” fuels, as defined by the REPS. However, what qualifies as “renewable” is contentious. Wood, which is classified as renewable under the REPS, releases carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, when trees are cut and again and then burned. Swine and poultry waste are “renewable” in that as long as there are industrialized livestock operations, there will be millions of tons of manure that will need disposed of.
Under the REPS, investor-owned utilities, like Duke, are required to buy or generate a very small portion of their power from poultry and swine waste. But those nascent technologies have failed to deliver, especially for poultry. Since the REPS became law, the Utilities Commission has allowed the utilities to postpone their compliance with the poultry and swine “set-asides,” as they’re known. The 2019 target of 700,000 megawatt hours for all investor-owned utilities was modified to 500,000, with a gradual increase to 900,000 in 2021, according to the commission’s 2020 annual report.
Likewise, the 2021 report shows that utilities doubted they could attain the poultry set-aside benchmark.
“The Commission noted that compliance has been hindered by the fact that the technology of power production from poultry waste continues to be in its early stages of development and projects have experienced operational challenges,” a Utilities Commission report from 2020 reads.
Duke Energy and NC Renewable Power are embroiled in a dispute, according to NC Utilities Commission records, over the alleged inability of NCRP to meet its obligations under a Power Purchase Agreement. Duke was buying power from the facility rom 2015 until it stopped operating in 2020. But NCRP has failed to generate the amount of energy — and renewable energy credits — that the utility agreed to buy. A credit is produced when a renewable energy source generates one megawatt-hour of electricity and delivers it to the grid. Duke Energy Progress estimates it would need more than 250,000 credits this year to meet its set-aside requirements, according to Utilities Commission documents.
Duke Energy spokesman Randy Wheeless told Policy Watch that the “issues concerning this facility are ongoing,” and that the utility is “in the middle of confidential discussions” with NCPR.
Meanwhile, the Division of Air Quality is scheduled later this spring to approve, amend or deny NCRP’s air quality permit.
Dana Powell is an associate professor of environmental anthropology whose family is from eastern North Carolina. She urged DEQ to deny the permit. DEQ has a public responsibility,” Powell said, “and not to create an easy pathway for polluters.”
Tons of pollution, produced by NC Renewable Power, 2016-2020
Total: At least 5,141 tons, equivalent to 10.2 million pounds, or 293,809 semi-trucks and their empty trailers
Sulfur dioxide, a respiratory irritant: 582 tons
Nitrogen oxides, a component of ozone: 756 tons
Carbon monoxide, reduces ability of blood to carry oxygen: 3,286 tons
Hazardous air pollutants: 46.59 tons*
Particulate matter, also known as PM 10, can burrow into lungs: 79.06 tons
(Source: NC Renewable Power air permits)
*NC Renewable Power monitors for only two hazardous air pollutants, formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, and methanol, which can cause neurological and respiratory problems. It’s also flammable. Patrick Anderson, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, told state officials at the public hearing that four other hazardous air pollutants are associated with burning wood pellets, but were not included in the plant’s testing.
A timeline: Carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and “sulfuric mist”
July – Previously known as Lumberton Energy, the NC Renewable Power plant begins operating under new ownership, Green Fuels Energy, based in Alabama. The facility has not operated since 2009. According to its permit at the time, NCPR is considered a “minor source” of air pollution because its operators have agreed to limit carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide each to 250 tons per year. It no longer burns tires and coal, which are to be replaced by wood and poultry waste.
“The plant was recently restarted on July 1, and has not been consistently running since,” a Division of Air Quality inspection from that time reads. The plant has generated power to the grid “a handful of times,” but never for more than about 35 minutes.
December – Exceeds emissions limits for particulate matter 2.5 (PM 2.5) and “sulfuric acid mist.” Exposure to PM 2.5 can worsen or cause respiratory illness, including asthma, and heart problems. Sulfuric acid mist can constrict the airways or cause hemorrhages in the respiratory tract.
March – Company voluntarily shuts down part of the plant because it is quickly approaching the 12-month limit of 250 tons of carbon monoxide emissions. After nine months of operation, the facility has already emitted 248 tons.
April – Company’s semi-annual report from 2015 shows 25 exceedances of sulfur dioxide and 43 for nitrogen oxides. A continuous emissions monitoring system failed to operate as required.
June – Division of Air Quality issues five Notices of Violation to NCRP for failing to comply with its permit.
August – “Special Order of Consent” between company and state goes into effect to help the facility get back into compliance. NCRP has recorded exceedances of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The continuous emissions monitoring system, key to troubleshooting exceedances, was down 43% of the time in mid-2015.
Company is fined $9,000 for various violations.
September – Georgia Renewable Power, the parent company of NCRP, among other related parties, is sued by financing companies in federal court in Georgia over allegedly failing to meet energy production obligations; lawsuit alleges NCRP knew of problems with the Lumberton plant but failed to disclose them. Lawsuit dismissed several years later.
State issues Notice of Deficiency for record-keeping issues. Carbon monoxide levels are exceeded even after the plant underwent repairs. “These repairs proved to be ineffective,” Division of Air Quality documents read.
November – Division of Air Quality issues another Notice of Violation for exceedances of carbon monoxide – by more than 13 tons.
NCRP, Georgia Renewable Power sued for breach of contract in federal court by NRG Energy Services, which previously operated the plant. Lawsuit eventually dismissed.
January — Company enters into a second Special Order of Consent with the Division of Air Quality so that the facility can comply with emissions limits for carbon monoxide. State fines company more than $15,000.
February – Equipment failure causes fire in the facility’s “baghouse,” which burned for more than four hours. Emissions amounts unknown.
March – State issues two Notices of Violation, one for nitrogen oxide exceedances and the other for the continuous emission monitoring system, which did not operate as required.
June – Seven Notices of Violation, including one for “control of visible emissions” and excessive particulates. There were seven exceedances of nitrogen oxide limits. Record-keeping and maintenance violations were logged as well.
October – NCRP applies for a “Prevention of Significant Deterioration” permit, which would authorize the company to install additional air pollution control devices.
November – Notice of Violation for nitrogen oxides exceedances
February – State levies civil penalty of $8,596 for various permit violations.
June — NCRP indicates it’s having difficulty meeting limits for carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides.
April – State issues Notice of Violation after an equipment failure at the plant caused a continuous emissions monitoring system to go offline for an “excessive” amount of time. This prevented NCRP from accurately monitoring for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.
June – NCRP notifies Duke Energy that it can’t meet the requirements of the Power Purchase Agreement. Lawyers for the utility argue this constitutes a default of the contract and that NCRP could be subject to financial damages. According to Utilities Commission documents, NCRP says it “has been forced to temporarily stop receipt of fuel” and therefore is prevented from operating because of “Duke’s abuse of its monopolistic market position and refusal to pay NCRP what it owes.”
August – Continuous emissions monitoring system fails, resulting in inability to track carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions.
September – State fines NCRP $3,449 for failing to operate continuous emissions monitoring system as required.
November — Carey Davis, executive vice president, tells the Division of Air Quality in a letter that “senior management” shut down the plant on Nov. 1. “This comes at a tremendous revenue stream loss. Currently electrical and renewable energy revenue is now non-existent.” Davis writes that the parent company plans to spend $50 million to upgrade the facility.
December – State issues Notice of Violation for excess emissions, including 18 violations of nitrogen oxide limits, and a civil penalty of $11,555.
NCRP asks for the penalty to be waived. State has not done so.
February – At a public hearing, concerned residents and environmental advocates ask the Division of Air Quality to deny the permit application and/or shut down the plant. State will decide whether to grant the permit this spring.
Although plant is not operating, its current permit expires Aug. 31.
This story has been updated to show the Utilities Commission releases its 2021 report.