USDA’s Support of Destructive Wood Pellet Industry Undermines Biden’s Pledges About Environmental Justice

In the Rose Garden on April 21, 2023, President Biden signed a new executive order elevating environmental justice concerns and promising tougher new oversight for fossil fuel projects, chemical plants, and other projects that have polluted poor communities and communities of color. The new order, “Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All,” is being praised as one of the most sweeping environmental justice actions of any president.

President Biden spoke movingly at the signing ceremony about parents he had met on the campaign trail who were afraid to let their kids play outside or drink water from the tap, due to rampant pollution.

“This kind of inequity and injustice goes against everything we stand for as a nation,” President Biden said. “But it continues to exist.”

He is right. The ugly legacy of environmental injustice is a stain on our country’s values of fairness and opportunity. But sadly, one of the many reasons this problem persists can be found within the president’s own executive branch—the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The same week President Biden announced his new environmental justice executive order, senior USDA officials were overseas working to drum up business for the wood pellet industry, an industry under fire from frontline communities and environmental justice organizations from North Carolina to Mississippi.

In April, Alexis Taylor, the USDA’s Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs traveled to the Netherlands with representatives from the U.S. Industrial Wood Pellet Association to promote the burning of wood pellets manufactured in the United States in Dutch power stations. Wood pellets are being burned in power stations across Europe to generate electricity as an alternative to coal—even though scientists have repeatedly warned that burning wood for electricity is worse than coal for the climate.

Over the past decade, the southern U.S. has become the world’s largest exporter of wood pellets. Wood pellet mills are disproportionately being sited in environmental justice communities. Residents, including children, are having trouble breathing since being exposed to the toxic air pollutioncoming from the smokestacks. People without any prior respiratory issues are now on asthma pumps.

In Dobbins Heights, North Carolina, children can’t play in the park anymore because of all the wood dust. Communities are also finding that the logging of forests is making flooding worse, putting them at increased risk from climate change.

The U.S. Industrial Pellet Association (USIPA) represents companies like Enviva and Drax Biomass which run industrial-scale plants across the American South that are inflicting harm on rural environmental justice communities.

The dirty biomass industry is facing a growing controversy in the Dutch Parliament, which passed a resolution in December 2022 to stop doing business with greenwashing wood pellet companies, specifically referencing Enviva, the South’s largest wood pellet producer. This measure could help slow the growth of the wood pellet industry’s expansion and its environmental injustices.

And yet, the USDA is using tax dollars to convince the Netherlands government to keep buying wood pellets made in the South at the expense of the health of our communities and our nation’s most biologically diverse forests.

USDA’s partnership with the USIPA is in direct conflict with President Biden’s historic support for environmental justice communities. Instead, the Biden Administration should promote policies that support clean air and forest protection in rural, low-wealth communities of color.

“To lead the world,” President Biden said at the signing ceremony for his executive order, “we have to start here at home.” One place to start would be to ensure that his administration—across all agencies—speaks with one voice when it comes to promoting environmental justice.

President Biden has spoken, but now the USDA must do its part to turn those inspiring words into reality.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Kathy Egland serves on the National Board of the NAACP where she chairs the Environmental Justice Committee and is the executive director and co-founder of the Education, Economics, Environmental, Climate and Health Organization (EEECHO), based in Mississippi. 

Danna Smith is the executive director of Dogwood Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in the South working to advance environmental justice and climate action by protecting Southern forests and communities from industrial logging.