In 2013, when Enviva Biomass opened a new plant near Belinda Joyner’s community in Northampton County, North Carolina, she already knew what to expect.
As the Northeast Organizer for Clean Water for North Carolina, she’d met with residents of a small, majority Black town called Ahoskie, 40 miles from her home. Enviva had built its first North Carolina plant there two years before.
The corporation, which manufactures wood pellets as a purportedly renewable alternative to coal, did what most industries do in prospective communities—they promised jobs, economic development, and minimal impacts. What Ahoskie got was approximately 50 direct jobs, local tree loss, noise, heavy traffic, air pollution, and combustible dust from wood drying and processing that threatens their health and enjoyment of their homes. On top of those impacts, as many scientists and environmental groups now say, wood pellets are not the hoped-for transition fuel championed just 11 years ago.
However, like Ahoskie, Joyner’s community wasn’t quick to organize against the plant.
“I made an announcement in my church that this plant was coming and I kind of gave them a gist of what it would entail and at first, you know how people just don’t kinda pay you any attention?” she told EHN. “And then once [Enviva] start building it, then they were saying ‘oh this is coming,’ and I told them ‘this is what I tried to tell you all about.'”
In June, I interviewed Joyner and other members of her community in Northampton County, which is located in the Northeast corner of the state, close to the Virginia state line. The area is rural, and peppered with industries—including Westrock Paper Mill, a warehouse and distribution center for Lowe’s Hardware, an industrial hog farm, and Enviva. Until it was canceled in late July, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was slated to run through the county, connecting to a newly constructed compressor station.
The county is also majority Black (57 percent), with 21 percent of residents living in poverty compared to 14 percent statewide, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census. The county’s median household income is 38 percent lower than the state as a whole; it is classified by North Carolina as a “Tier 1” county, meaning that it is among the 40 most economically distressed of the state’s 100 counties.EHN