Active Energy must comply with the law, like everyone else

Jefferson Currie II Guest columnist

The recent Notice of Violation sent by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to Active Energy Renewable Power is simply the agency doing its job to uphold our laws, protecting the air we breathe and questioning Active Energy’s poor planning for not being prepared to do business in North Carolina. As a polluter, the company violated the law by making process and equipment changes to their Lumberton pellet mill without a permit or authorization. Some politicians cast blame at everything and everyone but the company responsible.

As the Lumber Riverkeeper, my job is to monitor and protect the Lumber River Watershed so that we all have clean fishable, swimmable and drinkable water, both at the surface and under the ground. Sometimes that means holding companies like Active Energy accountable for their actions, especially when they are repeat-offenders of the laws designed to protect the health of North Carolina’s ecosystems and its people.

We know from public records that Active Energy had plenty of lead time to submit an updated air permit application or otherwise come into compliance with the law before DEQ issued the May 5 Notice of Violation. In fact, Active Energy should have applied for the required permit modification six months ago when the pellet mill was redesigned. Active Energy’s existing air permit clearly states that the construction or modification of “air pollution sources or cleaning devices” requires a permit from DEQ prior to construction. Active Energy was further reminded of this duty during inspections and conversations with DEQ occurring during March and April of this year.

And this isn’t the first time Active Energy has ignored warnings to obtain required permits until the last possible moment. In August 2020, Winyah Rivers Alliance — under which the Lumber Riverkeeper program is housed — had to send Active Energy a Notice of Intent to Sue letter before the company finally took steps to secure the required Clean Water Act permit for its discharge of stormwater into the Lumber River from the sawmill it had been operating for over eight months. Active Energy still hasn’t applied for a separate Clean Water Act permit that will be needed for wastewater discharges from the pellet mill’s operation, despite regulations requiring such applications to be submitted at least six months before operations start up. Full compliance with environmental laws is all the more important because Active Energy is operating on a contaminated site.

The way it looks to me, it’s pretty simple. If Active Energy, or any other company, wants to manufacture wood pellets, which release into the air we breathe hazardous and toxic air pollutants, dust, and particulate matter that are dangerous to human health, then the company must have an approved air quality permit for its operation. This is what North Carolina law requires of all such companies. It allows DEQ time to evaluate the process, equipment and controls used, and ensure that any issues are addressed and mitigated with appropriate modifications, so that state and federal air quality standards are met.

New, sudden changes that the company emitting pollution made without warning to an already approved process require the submission of a modified permit application. Reviewing a new, modified permit after the initial permit was approved puts more work on DEQ staff, but they are just doing their job and upholding laws that protect our communities, water and air from harmful pollutants.

Every day, many companies do their due diligence as a business, and secure approval for required permits that limit pollution. I earnestly and deeply care for our communities, and the Lumber River watershed, and sincerely believe that having clean water and air are essential for having good healthy living, which can help attract quality employers who pay good wages.

It’s like my mama often told me when I was growing up, when my bedroom was too messy for her liking, or when the yard needed some work or when the dishes needed washing: “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” 

Jefferson Currie II is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and joined Winyah Rivers Alliance as the Lumber Riverkeeper in 2018.