Ax Drax

A campaign to stop the Drax Group from building a biomass plant in Longview, WA

Announcing a win for this campaign! But the fight is far from over.

The SW Washington Clean Air Agency (SWWCAA) of Washington issued Drax a draft air discharge permit to build their biomass plant in Longview, WA. However, our movement to Stop Drax called on the SWWCAA to not move forward with granting Drax their permit. And it worked!

On March 21, the SW Washington Clean Air Agency (SWWCAA) announced they were withdrawing Drax’s draft air pollution permit and postponing the public hearing that was scheduled for March 28th. This is a win for our campaign, and only happened because we made our voices heard. So thank you for taking action!

However, this fight is far from over. We fully expect the SWCAA will issue a new draft permit, triggering another public comment period, and we will be ready when it comes. We will keep calling on the SWCAA to give a high level of scrutiny to Drax’s application for an air pollution permit, and to ultimately deny their application.

When it is time to deliver public comments on a new air discharge permit draft (stay tuned!), your testimony should focus primarily on air quality issues. You can also add a personal touch to explain how this facility will affect you personally.

Biomass is a false climate solution

In the summer of 2023, 350PDX began hearing rumblings of a new climate villain entering the Pacific Northwest. Drax, a multinational energy company, is proposing building a woody biomass pellet production plant and export facility in Longview, Washington. Drax is notorious for its Clean Air Act violations and greenwashing campaigns, but before we dive into Drax…

Image of biomass power plant in the United Kingdom. Dead grass field in the foreground stages over a dozen concrete smokestacks. The smokestacks are operating, with each spewing either smoke or water vapor that is headed to the right.


What is biomass, and why is it bad?

Biomass energy is marketed as a sustainable alternative to coal. To be clear: we aren’t talking about wood pellet stoves, we’re talking about industrial-scale energy production. The Dogwood Alliance estimates that sixty thousand acres of trees—trees that would have otherwise sequestered carbon—are burned each year to supply the growing pellet market. Global demand for wood pellets is expected to double by 2027, to more than thirty-six million tons. And although the entire premise of burning wood as renewable energy hinges on the assumption that trees grow back, there is no binding governmental or industrial oversight for replanting trees at all.

Every part of the biomass energy process has adverse climate and community impacts:

Logging: While the industry claims to use only logging byproducts, in truth it relies on whole trees, even logging old growth trees to be pulverized into pellets. We need these trees standing now, so they can sequester and store carbon.

Pellet Production: Manufacturing wood pellets produces harmful pollutants like nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants, and microscopic dust particles that contribute to serious health risks in local communities. Round-the-clock noise from pellet production and truck traffic also impacts community health and wellbeing. In the southeastern United States, wood pellet facilities frequently violate air quality regulations, making them even more dangerous for nearby communities.

International Shipping: Not only does shipping use huge amounts of energy, it is very dangerous. Several shipping personnel have died from deadly concentrations of harmful gasses created by unventilated wood pellet storage confinements and stored bulk piles of wood pellets can self-heat which can lead to spontaneous combustion.

Burning: Overall, for each kilowatt hour of heat or electricity produced, using wood is likely to add two to three times as much carbon to the air as using fossil fuels because it takes more wood to create the same amount of energy as burning coal. In 2020, the Drax power plant in England released 16.5 million tons of carbon, 13.2 million from burning biomass.

Replacing fossil fuels with bioenergy does not by itself reduce carbon emissions because the CO2 released by tailpipes and smokestacks is roughly the same per unit of energy regardless of the source. Emissions from producing/refining biofuels also typically exceed those for petroleum.

That’s why we’re frightened to see Biomass heading to Washington

Drax runs Britain’s largest power station, an old coal plant converted to burn wood pellets.

They also run biomass facilities in the southeastern United States, in Louisiana and Mississippi. In 2022, the State of Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality fined Drax for excess release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from two of its facilities. Together, this $3.2 million judgement was the largest air pollution fine levied in Louisiana for over a decade.

Amplifying the charge of environmental racism, the NAACP, one of the largest civil rights organizations in the United States, passed in 2021 a “Resolution in Opposition to Wood Pellets Manufacturing and Use of Wood-Bioenergy”. It calls out forest-based bioenergy not only as a false climate solution, but also a violator of human rights, with “toxic pollution disproportionately inflicted on low income and/or Black, Indigenous and Communities of Color in the manufacturing and transporting processes”. The resolution specifically mentions Drax as a violator.

Drax also operates in western Canada, with full or partial control of half of British Columbia’s wood pellet mills. The company has said it won’t source from old-growth forests, but its assets in Canada include old-growth forests. Drax claimed that it only takes ‘residues’ from forest harvest. In October 2022, investigative reporters from the respected BBC show ‘Panorama’ looked in depth at DRAX’s sourcing policies in Canada, calling them ‘an environmental scandal’ and ‘reveal[ing] how Drax is chopping down trees and taking logs from some of the world’s most precious forests.’

Now, Drax has its sights for Washington.

Drax will destroy the forests in Longview, harming natural habitats

Biomass is marketed to only produce wood pellets from wood byproducts – twigs, sawdust, and other scrap. Unfortunately, the amount of wood needed for pellets is vastly greater than the byproducts available. So, Drax ends up consuming large quantities of trees internationally, devastating forests near its pellet plants. The proposed facility would take approximately one million tons of wood from our forests each year!

Biomass is a danger to local economies

Wood pellet production creates fewer jobs per unit of wood than other timber jobs. Incentives in the southeastern United States to bring pellet plants to depressed counties led to increase poverty levels and decreased property values. The communities where wood pellet plants exist lose their forests, and all they get from the deal is unhealthy air and deafening noise.

Drax is a threat to clean air and quiet communities

Wood pellet production releases numerous pollutants including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen, and particulates (fine dust). Long-term exposure to this dust results in illness and lowered life expectancy. As for noise pollution, Drax’s hammer mills operate at 100 decibels (as loud as a train horn) for roughly 18 hrs a day.

Biomass is not sustainable, environmentally and financially

Carbon dioxide is emitted during the logging, drying, and pelletizing of wood, and again at the smokestack when the pellets are burned — biomass power plants emit more greenhouse gas than coal. So the global community loses, too.

To add insult to injury, the biomass energy sector thrives because of government subsidies. In the UK where it is based, Drax receives more than $750 million a year in subsidies. This is because biomass is labeled as renewable energy in the UK.

Drax must be stopped. Here’s how

Talking Points

While the public hearing on Drax’s draft air pollution permit was postponed, we fully expect the SW Washington Clean Air Agency CAA to issue new draft permit, triggering another public comment period, and we will be ready when it comes. We will keep calling on the SWCAA to give a high level of scrutiny to Drax’s application for an air pollution permit, and to ultimately deny their application.

When it is time to deliver public comments on a new air discharge permit draft (stay tuned!), your testimony should focus primarily on air quality issues. You can also add a personal touch to explain how this facility will affect you personally.

Evaluating Air Quality in Longview: Measurement of air quality in Longview is sorely lacking. There are no regulatory-standard air quality monitors nearby, only a nephelometer west of the Drax site.

  • Drax lists expected total emissions of Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) as 44 tons per year, making them a “major source” of emissions. Consequently this Drax facility should be evaluated using Maximum Available Control Technology (MACT) under the Clean Air Act, which SWCAA has failed to do.

HAPs include fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and coarse (PM10); nitrogen dioxide (NO2); polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); dioxins and other persistent environmental pollutants.

Adding Drax’s PM2.5 Pollution to Existing Air Pollution in Longview: Longview is already close to the maximum allowable threshold for PM2.5 air pollution. Adding more PM2.5 pollution to the airshed could have significant community health impacts.

  • The federal government recently updated the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS), lowering acceptable levels of PM2.5 pollution from 12 to 9 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3). In Longview, Westrock’s new box manufacturing facility was permitted to increase the airshed levels of PM2.5 to almost 9 µg/m3. That leaves Drax no margin for PM2.5 emissions.
  • Longview’s airshed flows south into the greater Vancouver-Portland area.

PM2.5 pollution is linked to cardiovascular disease, respiratory problems, aggravation of asthma, adverse impacts on childhood development, and premature death.

Drax’ State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) Review Needs to be Reopened: Drax received a Determination of Nonsignificance (DNS) in their SEPA review. But their Air Discharge Permit application with SWCAA is sufficiently different from their SEPA application that their SEPA application should be reopened. SEPA considerations include:

  • Trucks Not Ships?  Drax’ SEPA application said they would export wood pellets via ships. In the SWCAA air permit application, Drax instead proposes using a massive number of trucks to move biomass into their facility and ship wood pellets out. This discrepancy should not be allowed.
  • Truck Emissions  Drax’ Air Discharge Permit application only evaluates on-site emissions of trucks–not offsite, which impacts the surrounding community. Drax’ total truck emissions merit further analysis.

Drax is Proposing a Fuel Conversion Facility: Drax proposes to process massive amounts of woody biomass, primarily sawdust, into wood pellets, with the goal of exporting 490,000 tons of pellets per year. 

  • Drax’s plant qualifies as a fuel conversion facility, and should be evaluated accordingly.
  • Fuel conversion facilities require a more stringent emissions review than SWCAA has performed.

Drax Pellet Mills Elsewhere in the U.S. have been Subject to Massive Fines for Air Pollution: Officials in other states granted permits based on Drax’ modeling, but when actual air emissions were measured later, emissions were found to be 2-3 times higher. If permitted, Drax Longview should be subject to continuous air monitoring.

  • In late 2020 Drax was fined $3.5 M by Mississippi’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for emitting three times the volume of toxic substances as permitted for its plant–the largest fine in Mississippi’s history for air quality violations
  • In 2022, Louisiana’s DEQ fined Drax for excess release of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from two facilities – for a total of $3.2 M. Drax’ Morehouse plant in Louisiana was permitted to emit less than 250 tons of VOCs a year, but emitted more than 1,100 tons per year
  • Given this history, why would we expect Drax to do better in Longview?