Cutting through the brazen sound of bus and car horns coasting down Forsyth Street Friday afternoon, dozens of protesters cycled through chants while standing outside the Environmental Protection Agency’s Atlanta office in downtown, holding handmade signs reading “Clean Air for All” and “We Need to Breathe”.

Environmental justice nonprofit Dogwood Alliance, along with its partners, organized a press conference on Friday in protest of the EPA’s negligence in caring for the health and well-being of residents living in wood pellet factory towns across the Southeast.

Protesters traveled from as far as North Carolina and South Carolina to participate in the event.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, biomass is “renewable organic material that comes from plants and animals”. Biomass is used in developed and developing countries alike as a reliable form of energy, often burning the substances in order to convert them into fuel. Wood pellets, pieces of recycled wood that typically measure a few inches in length, make up one example of biomass, and are commonly produced and burned in North America.

Although the conversion of wood pellets into harvestable fuel is considered “clean energy” by experts in the field because of its use of natural and repurposed materials, the conversion process is anything but for residents living near production sites.

Factories that manufacture wood pellets in large quantities tend to emit harmful pollutants into the air that irritate the eyes and lungs when inhaled or ingested. These factories release carbon into the air by burning the recycled wood, which also contributes to the impending international climate crisis.

The Rev. Leo Woodberry, pastor of Kingdom Living Temple and executive director of New Alpha Community Development Corporation in Florence, South Carolina, kicked off the protest by demanding EPA keep their promise to Southeastern residents, to tour the communities impacted by the burning and manufacturing of wood pellets and witness the destruction the energy corporations cause.

“We see this devastation happening, but EPA is not responding to the wishes of the people,” Woodberry said.

Dogwood Alliance originally organized the press conference as a rally, protesting the EPA’s lack of action related to the absence of environment-related safety protocols for predominantly Black and brown communities. However, the EPA’s sudden cancellation sparked outrage among local activists and residents affected by wood pellet pollution.

According to an interactive map on the Dogwood Alliance website, wood pellet facilities are heavily concentrated across the southern United States, starting from the Virginia-North Carolina border and crossing westward into Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. These factories tend to settle into small towns and communities with ample amounts of timber for logging. Some factories take root in states further west, as well, including Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas.

Protesters took turns testifying their experiences living in towns that have been negatively impacted by the arrival of wood pellet corporations.

Treva Gear, founder of the grassroots organization Concerned Citizens of Cook County, said two wood pellet plants were permitted to be built in her hometown of Adel, Georgia over the past two years, a small town about 50 miles southeast of Albany with a poverty rate exceeding 20%. According to Gear, one of these plants is expected to be the largest wood pellet facility in the world upon completion. These permits were passed despite Adel’s population, consisting of just over 5,500 residents, already experiencing a myriad of other health and environmental issues, including a lack of access to clean and safe drinking water.

“Clean air and water is a human right,” Gear said. “We want justice, and a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Gear blames the Environmental Protection Agency for overlooking the communities suffering at the hands of wood pellet corporations.

“What we’re asking the EPA to do [is] stand up for us,” Gear said. “We are asking the EPA to do their jobs.”

Debra David, from North Carolina, made her way to Atlanta for the protest. “[The plants] drag your community down,” David said. “It’s a bad business.” Photo by Janelle Ward/The Atlanta Voice

Another protestor, Debra David, hailing from Dobbins Heights, North Carolina, said renewable energy company Enviva, the largest manufacturer of wood pellets in the world, developed a plant in her community, which consists of just over 500 residents. David testified to the fact that these facilities are physically harmful to residents closely situated to the source of the pollution, saying she never experienced breathing problems until Enviva’s wood pellet plant began production.

“[The plants] drag your community down,” David said. “It’s a bad business.”

Since companies like Enviva and Drax, another major wood pellet producer and consumer, require excessive amounts of lumber to create wood pellets for burning and manufacturing, logging and deforestation have become issues in factory-dominated towns and neighborhoods in the South, as well. Dogwood Alliance has protested the mass destruction of southern forests, stating trees remove excessive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and help cushion heavy blows caused by water-related natural disasters.

Pete Parr, chief of the Pee Dee Indian Tribe of South Carolina, said the EPA should do more to protect southern forests and the communities they safeguard.

“Look at this tree,” Parr said, while pointing at a tree in close proximity to the protest site. “It lives and breathes just like we do.”

Dogwood Alliance and its partners also plan to launch a nationwide petition to push the EPA to acknowledge the harmful repercussions of the biomass industry and commit to touring the nation’s Southeast, a commitment the agency has broken twice over the past six months. The petition also urges the EPA to create a working group focused specifically on the biomass industry in the country and bring an end to “sacrifice zones,” unwanted land that governments surrender to environmental destruction.

“We have to put justice first. We have to put human rights first. We have to put our planet first,” Woodberry said. “And where there is no justice, there will be no peace.”