Harvard Study Links Air Pollution to Higher COVID-19 Risks
On July 28, the day Mendocino County was placed on the statewide watch list due to increases in COVID-19 infections and deaths, a coalition of Northern California and statewide environmental and social justice advocates sent a letter to the Mendocino County Air Quality Management District and the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, the State EPA and the California Air Resources Board requesting that the Mendocino Forest Product’s Calpella wood pellet production plant’s operations be suspended during the pandemic (letter below).
This request was premised on the fact that the Mendocino County Planning Department and the Board of Supervisors never undertook a public environmental review process prior to the wood pellet plant’s construction. The environmental risks and public health hazards from the pollution that emanates from the wood pellet making plant was never publicly and transparently addressed by the County decision makers prior to approving construction of the plant.
As the COVID-19 death toll continues to rise across the United States, a study from Harvard’s School of Public Health concludes that long-term exposure to air pollution increases the death rate from COVID-19. The researchers found that, “A small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 [particulate matter] leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate.” They also emphasize that the “study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.”
SEIJ (Social, Environmental and Indigenous Justice), an affinity group waging a campaign to protect rural and indigenous communities from pollution emitted by the Calpella wood pellet fuel plant, has presented the Air Quality Management District with research studies concerning the health hazards associated with the air pollution emanating from wood pellet plants, including studies linking air pollution to increased levels of COVID deaths. Despite these educational efforts no action has been taken.
The failure to require an environmental review process with opportunity for public input and review of alternate site locales is inexplicable to local residents since the neighborhood in which the plant is located, though zoned General Industrial by the County, is actually agricultural and residential. Moreover, a tribal health clinic servicing the members of nine local tribes, and two schools, one private and one public, are located a few blocks from the plant. The Coyote Valley Reservation is just a mile away, and literally downstream from the plant is a largely working-class Hispanic neighborhood.
The plant began operations in August 2017. Over the first two years and more, it failed to meet permissible levels of pollution, and was required to reduce production substantially and to install pollution monitoring devices. Finally in November of 2019 the plant passed a source test of pollution. Since then, based on this single test, the plant has been and is currently, allowed to operate at full levels of production. According to the press release accompanying the plant’s opening, Mendocino Forest Products intends to produce 1.5 to 1.75 million 40 lb. plastic bags or 30,000 to 35,000 tons of wood pellets per year.
As presently planned the Mendocino Air Quality Management District will not be requiring another source test for pollution from the plant until November this year and will only conduct one source test a year to monitor pollution thereafter.
It is especially alarming to the coalition that is requesting plant operation suspension that all air quality monitoring data from the plant’s smokestacks and burners was redacted by the Air Quality Monitoring District in its answer to a CA Public Records Act request filed by Priscilla Hunter, tribal elder of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians. Given these redactions, the public has no way of gauging the extent of the pollution to which it has been exposed in the past, and the community will not have the information necessary to understand the extent of ongoing air pollution beyond information obtained from one source test per year.
Priscilla Hunter, infuriated by the lack of transparency she has encountered from the Air Quality Management District stated: “This reminds me of when the US Army gave small-pox infected blankets to Indian tribes. The County government is still poisoning Indians and now not only Indians but the local community too.”
In light of the now doubly urgent need to protect community health and safety, local tribes, activists and statewide organizations are joining forces to demand closure of the Calpella plant during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is what social, environmental and Indigenous justice looks like”, said Polly Girvin, a member of SEIJ helping to coordinate the effort.
- Wood Pellet Plant in Mendocino County Threatens Public Health
- Northern California Indian Tribes Oppose Calpella Wood Pellet Plant
Pellet Plant Community Signatory Letter
July 28, 2020
Mendocino County Air Quality Management District
306 East Gobbi Street
Ukiah, CA 95482
Submitted via email to firstname.lastname@example.org
RE: Request for suspension of facility operations at the Mendocino Forest Products Wood Pellet Production Plant (1) in light of the Covid pandemic and (2) due to inadequate environmental review in locating the plant in a residential/agricultural neighborhood.
To the Mendocino County Air Quality Management District:
Due to the threat posed to the community and public health by the polluting operations at the Mendocino Forest Products Wood Pellet Production Plant in Calpella, we, the undersigned organizations and concerned residents of Mendocino County, request the suspension of facility operations.
Wood pellet production releases heavy amounts of harmful pollutants including: Carbon monoxide; nitrogen oxide; Greenhouse gasses; Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s); fine particulate matter at the 2.5 level; acetaldehyde; formaldehyde and methanol. Breathing the pollutants emitted from wood pellet production plants can trigger a variety of health problems particularly to children, the elderly and people of all ages who have lung diseases such as asthma.
The Mendocino Wood Pellet Production Plant, operated by Mendocino Forest Products, is located one mile from the Reservation of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians and in the same valley as the Redwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians and is situated a block away from the Consolidated Tribal Health Project (CTHP) Clinic, a health clinic which serves 9 Tribes, and a few blocks away from a public and private school. Literally downstream from the plant is a working class neighborhood consisting mostly of Hispanic residents and families.
Since the Wood Pellet Production Plant’s opening in August 2017, it has been emitting harmful pollutant matter into the atmosphere, endangering the respiratory health of the community. On several occasions, the Mendocino County Air Quality Management District found the Plant emitting pollutants in violation of its operating permit. Community members have addressed this threat to public health to the Mendocino Board of Supervisors, and have presented scientific research linking toxic air pollution from wood pellet plants leading to irreversible damage to lung health.
In this time of a Covid-19 pandemic, allowing the plant to continue operations and release pollutants that increase the threat of respiratory and cardiovascular ailments is misguided and a danger to the citizens of this county. People with Covid-19 who live in U.S. regions with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from the disease than people who live in less polluted areas, according to a new nationwide study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Please find attached a comprehensive list of facts from a variety of scientific sources whose authors are listed for further reference.
From research into the public record of the County’s approval process for the plant’s construction we have found that the facility’s potential negative health impacts were never evaluated through a proper environmental review process. We are extremely concerned at the lack of transparency, public process and notification regarding the plant’s alarming violations.
In light of the threat posed by the plant’s emissions to the health of nearby residents (especially sensitive receptors), as well as the documented violations of its permits and the lack of a proper environmental and public review, we the undersigned organizations and concerned residents of Mendocino County call for the suspension of facility operations at the plant, especially during the pandemic.
We, the undersigned strongly believe the Mendocino Forest Products’ Wood Pellet Production Plant should cease operations immediately and should not be allowed to re-open unless and until a thorough environmental review process with robust civic engagement opportunities concludes the facility’s emissions are safe in its current location.
In health and environmental justice for all.
PO Box 401
Redway CA 95560
CAM – Climate Action Mendocino
EPIC -Environmental Protection Information Center
145 G St. Suite A
Arcata, CA 95521
Humboldt Earth First!
Priscilla Hunter, Tribal Elder
Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians
MEC – Mendocino Environmental Center
106 W. Standley St.
Ukiah CA 95462
Redwood Nation Earth First!
P.O. Box 219
Bayside CA 95524
SEIJ – Social Environmental Indigenous Justice
630 S. Main St.
Willits CA 95490
WEC – Willits Environmental Center
630 S. Main St.
Willits CA 95490
Mendocino County Board of Supervisors email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
California Department of Justice Arsenio.Mataka@doj.ca.gov
California Air Resources Board Veronica.Eady@arb.ca.gov
California EPA Yana.Garcia@calepa.ca.gov; Jared.Blumenfeld@calepa.ca.gov; Suma.Peesapati@calepa.ca.gov
ENVIRONMENTAL AND HEALTH IMPACTS
RESULTING FROM WOOD PELLET PRODUCTION
This collection of facts comes from a variety of scientific sources whose authors are listed for further reference.
- Wood pellets are a carbon-intense, destructive and polluting industry (Wisner, A., Musil, R.K., Tiwari, S., Sung, S., & McAulif, W., n.d.).
- “When wood pellets are first processed or chipped in mills, they release heavy amounts of carbon dioxide and harmful pollutants” (Wisner, A., Musil, R.K., Tiwari, S., Sung, S., & McAulif, W., n.d.)
- Wood pellet material sourcing leads to massive deforestation of critical habitats (Wisner, A., Musil, R.K., Tiwari, S., Sung, S., & McAulif, W., n.d.).
- Wood pellets plants are also massive sources of greenhouse gases. The process to produce wood pellets requires high inputs of energy that emit over three million tons of greenhouse gases, like CO2 , further contributing to global climate change (Wisner, A., Musil, R.K., Tiwari, S., Sung, S., & McAulif, W., n.d.).
- “Many climate scientists have refuted the EU’s premise that cutting whole trees to burn for electricity is carbon neutral, especially in a time scale relevant to fighting the worst impacts of climate change…Recent reports document the wood bioenergy industry’s adverse impacts on southern forests as well as its role in causing global climate change” (Environmental Integrity Project, 2018).
- “EIP’s survey reveals that these facilities emit dangerous amounts of air pollution, and further finds that state agencies consistently fall well short of their duty to ensure that these facilities control their pollution to the levels required by law, frequently due to misleading information supplied by the industry. As a result, many large pellet mills have been allowed to emit air pollution, especially volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hazardous air pollutants at levels well above legal limits for years at a time” (Environmental Integrity Project, 2018).
- A main source of pollution “is the drying process, as burning wood emits substantial amounts of fine particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and greenhouse gases” (Environmental Integrity Project, 2018).
- “Green wood (that is, wood before it has been dried) contains significant amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and applying heat or mechanical energy to the wood releases the VOCs into the air. Once in the atmosphere, VOCs combine with sunlight to produce ground-level ozone, a major constituent of smog…In addition to the ozone risk, VOC emissions from wood pellet mills also contain numerous individual pollutants which are classified by the EPA as hazardous air pollutants, such as acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, and methanol” (Environmental Integrity Project, 2018).
- “The burning of biomass fuels is one of the most important sources of air pollutants, including emissions of CO, volatile organic carbons, particulate matter (PM), black carbon, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).(4-6) These emissions not only cause severe indoor air pollution…but also contribute to regional and even global air pollution and climate forcing” (Shen, et al., 2012).
- Pellet production facilities release dangerous air pollutants including particulate matter and volatile organic compounds, putting surrounding communities at higher risk for health complications (Wisner, A., Musil, R.K., Tiwari, S., Sung, S., & McAulif, W., n.d.).
- “The processing and burning of wood pellets creates, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), particulate matter (PM), nitrogen oxides (NO), and carbon monoxide, all of which are detrimental to human health” (Wisner, A., Musil, R.K., Tiwari, S., Sung, S., & McAulif, W., n.d.)
- “Risk from air-borne pollutants which can cause or worsen cardiovascular and respiratory issues and cancers. Long-term exposure to many of these pollutants, especially acetaldehyde, formaldehyde and methanol can also cause chronic symptoms and harm early child development” (Wisner, A., Musil, R.K., Tiwari, S., Sung, S., & McAulif, W., n.d.).
- “Multiple lines of evidence suggest that short-term exposure to elevated levels of biomass combustion products could increase the risk of respiratory-related health impacts” and, for a limited number of species, a potential carcinogen (Rohr, et al., 2015).
- Wood pellet manufacturing creates “high levels of air pollution—such as soot and volatile organic compounds…pollution which can lead to a wide array of health and environmental problems” (Environmental Integrity Project, 2018).
- “PM2.5 consists of airborne particles less than 2.5 micrometers which can pass deep into a person’s lungs and even into the bloodstream, causing heart attacks, decreased lung function, worsening asthma symptoms, and premature death…Many wood pellet mills frequently emit 60 to 80 tons per year of PM2.5, even after installing controls” (Environmental Integrity Project, 2018).
- Breathing ozone created by the wood pellet facilities “can trigger a variety of health problems, particularly for children, the elderly, and people of all ages who have lung diseases such as asthma” (Environmental Integrity Project, 2018).