Note: Lana Cohen is a Report For America fellow covering the environment & natural resources for TMV & KZYX. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Lana’s work here or email [email protected]. Contact Cohen at LCohen@mendovoice.com. TMV maintains editorial control.
LITTLE RIVER, 7/27/20 — A half a mile from Calpella’s small downtown, a plume of gray emissions comes billowing out of the smokestack of the nearby wood pellet plant day and night, says a resident of the nearby Coyote Valley Reservation.
Although the plant currently meets the official air quality requirements, community members in the Calpella area are concerned for their health, especially in this time as COVID-19, a pandemic disease which attacks the lungs, is spiking in Mendocino.
Now a group of local activists and statewide organizations have begun a campaign to close the plant for the duration of the pandemic, and have drafted a letter to the Air District, the Board of Supervisors, and multiple state agencies laying out their requests.
They fear that the emissions coming from the Mendocino Forest Products wood pellet plant may be adversely impacting the health of residents. Some believe the plant’s emissions, which, in its first two years of operation, had to cut to production by 50% to stay within permissible levels of pollution, may be putting the Calpella community at greater risk of mortality from COVID-19.
Barbara Moed, the chief air pollution control officer at the Mendocino County Air Quality Management District, a state agency affiliated with Mendocino County and tasked with regional air quality planning, monitoring, and stationary source and facility permitting, has been working with Mendocino Forest Products throughout their process of opening the plant and getting it into compliance with their permit and state and local air quality regulations. Although it took years to get into compliance, Mendocino Forest Products ultimately passed their emissions test in November of 2019.
The Director of Forest Policy at Mendocino Redwood Company and Humboldt Redwood Company, John Andersen, says he doesn’t understand why community members are concerned about unsafe emissions emanating from the plant, noting that Mendocino Forest Products is in compliance with all required permits and standards, something they worked hard to make sure was the case.
A recent nationwide study from Harvard’s T.H. Chan school of public health, which has not yet been peer reviewed, found a connection between air pollution over numerous years and increased mortality rates from COVID-19. They cited an 8 percent increase in mortality from coronavirus for every 1 microgram per cubic meter increase in air pollution. Many Americans breathe air with 8 micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter.
The coalition, which includes, among others, Social Environmental Indigenous Justice (SEIJ), Environmental Protection Information Center, The Willits Environmental Center and Climate Action Mendocino, has drafted a letter requesting that the plant’s operations be shut down during the pandemic. The alliance plans on sending the letter to the Mendocino County Air Quality Control Management District, the Board of Supervisors, the California Department of Justice, the state Air Resources Board, and the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the next few days.
Polly Girvin, resident of Coyote Valley Reservation, Indigenous rights lawyer and long time environmental activist, is behind much of this recent organizing.
Mendocino Forest Products, a manufacturer and distributor of redwood and Douglas fir goods, opened the Calpella Wood Pellet Plant, which makes wood pellets from redwood and Douglas fir by-products and biomass residue, in 2017.
The owner of Mendocino Forest Products, San Francisco based investment company Sansome Partners, also owns Mendocino Redwood Company and Humboldt Redwood Company. Mendocino Redwood Company, which supplies the raw materials for Mendocino Forest Products, owns 350 square miles, or 228,800 acres of timberlands in Mendocino and Sonoma Counties. The Fisher family, the primary investors in Sansome Partners, also own the Oakland A’s and The Gap.
New wood pellet plants are popping up across the country, “driven by European climate policies and subsidies that reward burning wood,” reported InsideClimate News. According to their reporting, wood pellet exports have more than tripled between 2012 and 2019, even as scientists say burning biomass is a dangerous carbon accounting loophole that could threaten climate goals.
The wood pellet plant in Calpella went up with little hassle, no environmental impact report, and no public notice to the community. None was required before construction of the plant due to the zoning designation and the plants distance from groups sensitive to pollution.
The parcel of land that Mendocino Forest Products built their plant on is zoned as industrial by the Mendocino County Building and Planning Commission. Specifically, it is designated as a general industrial zone, an area “intended to create and preserve areas where a full range of industrial uses with moderate to high nuisance characteristics may locate. Typically, this district would be applied to locations where large land acreages were available and where the impacts associated with the unsightliness, noise, odor, and traffic, and the hazards associated with certain industrial uses, would not impact on residential and commercial areas.”
Under this classification, forest production processing is not subject to environmental review. Additionally, a Mendocino Planning and Building Services project activity history document from the County shows that back on April 6, 2017, Mary Lynn Hunt, chief planner at Mendocino County planning and building services, had a meeting with County CEO Carmel Angelo, Ignacio “Nash” Gonzalez, and District 2 County Supervisor John McCowen and determined that the project would not have an adverse impact on the environment. The following quote is from the project activity history document.
“The project will not have an adverse impact on the enviornment and therefore no further requirements per MCC Sec. 20.188.020(A). (Historic Lumber Mill site, all infastructure is in place, a current lumber distrabution center is in operation along with other industrial businesses on the former mill site. Complinace with the I2 zoning district and per Supervisor McCowen, the importance of job creations. The applicant was notifed by phone, PBS is finishing up the DR process and that they should submit their Building Permit applicaiton as soon as possible. Air Quality will be notified that the DR is complete.”
Moed explained that when the air management district gets an application for a project under their purview, they have a standard checklist of considerations. One item on the list is to determine if the proposed establishment is within 1000 feet of a sensitive receptor, a California Air Resources Board designation of people who are at high risk of being adversely impacted by pollution. In the case of the pellet plant, the sensitive receptors identified near the plant were the Tribal Health Clinic, the Waldorf School of Mendocino County, and Calpella Elementary School.
“In this case, the stationary source was not within 1000 feet of any of those sensitive receptors, and that would be a trigger for a public notice,” Moed said. “The circumstances for this facility did not meet the requirement for the district to provide a public notice.”
Although, at this time, no one claims regulations were violated, Girvin doesn’t believe that the procedures and rules in place adequately protect the public health of the community. She also thinks the area is improperly zoned as industrial, citing the nearby schools, clinic and downtown area.
That’s why she plans on asking the Board of Supervisors, the Air Quality Management District, and other organizations to step in and force Mendocino Forest Products to suspend their operations.
“We can only object as citizens and say, please, we need more transparency here, we need some opportunities to consider at the public safety level the emissions from this plant in its current location,” said Girvin.
Girvin has been investigating the plant for months, requesting thousands of pages in public records, communicating with the Mendocino County Air Quality Management District, and encouraging others to get behind her to help find out whether or not the wood pellet plant is putting the health of the community at risk.
“That’s what this letter will be requesting,” said Girvin over the phone. “That there will be a suspension of operations and that we need to re-open and have a thorough environmental review process and we need to have some robust civic engagement opportunities to be able to determine whether this facility is safe in its current location, which is not industrial, which is residential, and largely, of course, downstream is a working class Hispanic neighborhood. Both Hispanic and Native people are also at increased vulnerability to the COVID and the clinic that services nine tribes a block away has vulnerable populations attending it daily. We believe this is a community health risk and are requesting that it be shut down during the spike of COVID in our county.”
In the first two years of operation, from 2017 to 2019, the plant exceeded the permissible levels of pollution dictated in their permit, including of particulate matter 2.5, a fine, inhalable form of pollution that can get into the lungs and bloodstream, posing serious health risks, respiratory and otherwise. In order to keep within their permits pollution limits, they cut production down to one-half of their original rate.
Moed worked with the company over this time to make sure they got into compliance with their permit. Moed and the Air District wrote Mendocino Forest Products two notices of violation and initiated three interim operating agreements — temporary, transitional agreements with the air management district which allowed them to operate at the reduce (one-half) rate in order to keep their emissions within permit limits while they figured out how to ramp up production and stay below air pollution limits. The air district also required them to get a new emissions abatement control device. “The original control device obviously wasn’t working well enough to get them into compliance,” said Moed.
During the time Mendocino Forest Products was under interim operating agreements, they evaluated different pollution control devices they could use. They brought a team of engineers out there to brainstorm ideas, and ultimately, they added additional monitoring probes, or devices and automated the plant’s operation. “The combination of the additional monitoring probes and the automatic response to changes in condition for running the plant is what ultimately got them to the point where for their source test in November 2019, the particulate matter levels came in at about half of what is allowable emissions in their permit.”
“It’s been a long process,” said Moed “But they did what they needed to do to get there.”
Girvin, who recently found out about this permit violation, doesn’t have such a positive view on the matter.
“We have gotten the case history of the file and found out there was a permit violation consistently in the first two years of operation and that pm 2.5 was a continuing problem of impermissible levels of pollution,” she said. We have determined that it’s in the best health interest of the community in the time of COVID and from a pollutant site that has a history of 2.5 particulate matter pollution to request a suspension of operations of the plant and that would be pending further transparency and public outreach by the board of supervisors and by the air quality management district.”
In response to these recent complaints, the Air Quality Management District is requiring Mendocino Forest Products to generate a health risk assessment for the facility and has requested that Mendocino Forest Products move up their next emissions compliance test to August from November.
John Andersen, Director of Forest Policy at Mendocino Redwood Company and Humboldt Redwood Company, says he’s at a loss as to why the community thinks they have some sort of emissions that are harmful. “I get that there’s a plume that comes out of the plant, but that’s all steam,” he said.
“Concerned residents are certainly welcome to give us a call,” Andersen added. “We would be happy to explain what we have done to make sure we are meeting all that the air quality management district requires of us. They can visit the plant if they want to, we would be happy to let them do so.”
Andersen also noted that he thinks the concerns being brought up are better directed to the county government, rather than Mendocino Forest Products. “I think it’s more of a question for the county and how they do their zoning,” said Andersen. “We complied with any required permits, if that is something that people are unhappy about they should probably talk to the county about how they allow building in industrial zones.”