Dirty Wood Pellet Plant In California Redwood Region Raises Further Doubt About Biomass Sustainability Standards

The surreptitious installation of pollution controls at a controversial wood pellet manufacturing plant in Mendocino County on the North Coast of California has raised doubts about the failures of biomass and forest management sustainability standards to protect public health. Biofuelwatch has provided extensive analysis of the concerns about the failures of sustainability standards to protect forest ecosystems, the global climate and local communities from the harmful impacts of biomass production.

In the small rural Northern California indigenous and Latinx community of Calpella, at the junction of State Highway 20 and the famous Redwood Region Highway 101, just north of the Mendocino County administrative capital Ukiah, the Forest Stewardship Council certified Mendocino Redwood Company has constructed and begun to operate a small scale (35,000 tons/year) wood pellet manufacturing plant.

The non-stop personal, commercial and industrial vehicle traffic through the highway junction has made this community a long time locale of public health concern due to the air quality impacts of the mobile source pollution from a constant stream of cars and trucks.

The small scale wood pellet manufacturing plant belongs to a subsidiary of Mendocino Redwood Company called Mendocino Forest Products. Mendocino Redwood Company belongs to a holding company that is majority owned by the California aristocratic Fisher family, the owners of the Gap-Old Navy-Banana Republic clothing empire, as well as the popular Oakland Athletics baseball franchise.

Mendocino Forest Products manufactures and then packages the wood pellets in 40 lb bags, largely for distribution and sales through The Home Depot.

The prestigious relationship that Mendocino Redwood Company and the sister Humboldt Redwood Company maintain with The Home Depot is fundamentally justified on the certification of both companies and their products by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

The wood pellets manufactured by Mendocino Forest Products are marketed as being under the FSC umbrella on the Mendocino Redwood Company website.

The community continues to demand answers regarding this air quality threat that literally appeared out of nowhere. Local organizing has made a priority of efforts to have the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors engage with the concerned public about these matters. Unfortunately, in the second week of December, the County supervisors heard a report from the Mendocino County Air Quality Management District about the wood pellet manufacturing plant in which a recent health risk assessment was presented and discussed. As an example of the now typical exclusionary culture of county authorities no effort was made to share the health risk assessment with community members prior to the Supervisors meeting, and neither was an effort made by county or air district representatives to engage concerned members of the public and invite them to participate in the Board of Supervisors meeting on the air district agenda item.

Because of the reticence of air district authorities to be forthcoming with information regarding the siting, construction and early operations of the plant, it is only through the diligence and activism of local community members that something of a story of what has happened at the wood pellet plant has begun to be pieced together.

This history of the wood pellet plant was constructed through the review of documentation that local activists and partners from the statewide environmental justice network supporting community members in Mendocino County have been able to access through the leveraging of the California Public Records Act.

What stands out in the documentation is that the mill was sited, constructed and began operation with absolutely no public notice and no opportunity for public comment.

Apparently, as local activists have shared in news reports and local community radio coverage of the wood pellet plant controversy, the still active leftovers of the timber industry ‘old boy network’ combined with antiquated land zoning laws to allow the Mendocino Redwood Company to install and begin operations at the plant without any public notification, much less a transparent environmental review process.

It was in the early stages of plant operation through 2018 and 2019 that the community controversy began, due to the obvious air quality impacts of the plant operations.

Though no public engagement was pursued, review of documents from the local air district and the state Air Resources Board show that community complaints about emissions and air quality impacts from the wood pellet plant forced the state Air Resources Board to pursue enforcement action. This enforcement action was apparently the trigger for the local air district to require Mendocino Forest Products to dramatically lower their production levels until new pollution control technology was installed on the main burner of the pellet plant that generates the heat for the wood pellet manufacturing process.

In essence, what the local air district willingly admits, yet still refuses to address in a holistic fashion in response to community concerns, is that the pollution from the plant was so bad that ultimately the company had to install a ‘wet scrubber’ to bring the emissions down to a level that the air district currently considers meeting air quality protection standards.

The local community remains unsatisfied with the lack of public engagement offered by county authorities, as well as the dismissive attitude of the company in regards concerns. There are still limited indications that adequate monitoring of air quality at the site has been established.

The ongoing difficulty in getting clear and transparent answers to questions about the specific pollution controls installed at the plant, as well as other related matters that the local community has raised as concerns, remains a reason to question the degree to which the Forest Stewardship Council brand and logo can be used to cover up and distract the public and consumers from the real environmental and social harms associated with the manufacture of products that carry the FSC label.

Biofuelwatch will continue to work with partners in Mendocino County and on the North Coast of California to illuminate this case study in the potential public health impacts of biomass energy. The issues of feedstock and the ecosystem impacts from extraction of forest biomass for timber and wood pellet manufacturing also merit further scrutiny, as the crisis in forest governance in California’s forests remains an acute though under publicized problem. Even as the impacts from wildfire seem to be taking on apocalyptic dimensions across the continent there is a willful negligence on the part of state authorities to address the capture by the wood products industry of the regulatory apparatus that should be providing effective oversight of timber industry activities.

The surreptitious installation of pollution control equipment on the Mendocino Forest Products Calpella wood pellet manufacturing plant, and the now obvious efforts of company and government officials to make this controversy ‘go away,’ will not pass without further scrutiny. The impacts of this plant and the unconfirmed but potential threat of the company installing yet another small scale plant of this nature in another location in the Redwood Region merit the attention of community members and climate justice organizations. Biofuelwatch will stay engaged on this matter heading into 2021.

Learn more:

KPFA Terra Verde – Community Organizes to Protect Public Health from Wood Pellet Plant

Indymedia SF Bay – Wood Pellet Plant In Mendocino County Threatens Public Health