By Sarah Nagem
Community activists and local leaders say they are relieved a wood-pellet company has abandoned its plans for Robeson County. But they anticipate more battles ahead with industries that run the risk of polluting the air and water.
Active Energy Group is selling its facility near Lumberton, the renewable energy company announced last week.
The London-based company, which uses technology called CoalSwitch that burns wood pellets to create fuel, was met with local opposition and lawsuits in North Carolina.
“We are so inundated with dirty industry,” said Anita Cunningham of the Robeson County Cooperative for Sustainable Development. “The communities that are most impacted are our Black and brown communities. Finally they’re hearing what we’ve been saying, that we’re sick of it.”
Active Energy set up near south Lumberton, a predominantly Black neighborhood, after it bought the former Alamac American Knits factory in 2019.
The 40 new jobs expected from Active Energy wouldn’t have replaced all of those lost from Alamac, which reportedly employed more than 150 people when it closed in 2017.
Active Energy received a $500,000 grant from the North Carolina Rural Infrastructure Authority for its Lumberton project. The Robeson County Economic Development Commission also cheered the company’s arrival, saying it would “have a noticeable and positive impact on our local economy,” The Robesonian reported at the time.
But some opinions shifted quickly. Wixie Stephens, chairwoman of the Robeson County Board of Commissioners, said she was happy that Active Energy pulled out of the area.
“We want jobs,” she said, “but that company was just not conducive to Robeson County.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center sued Active Energy on behalf of the Winyah River Alliance last year. The lawsuit said Active Energy illegally discharged pollutants such as zinc and copper into the Lumber River.
In February, the Southern Environmental Law Center said testing of the river water showed “unpermitted discharges of toxic PFAS” in violation of federal law.
PFAS are chemicals commonly used in manufacturing and can cause health concerns in people, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
In its announcement last week, Active Energy said “independent testing of CoalSwitch demonstrated that the fuel burns cleaner and produces fewer pollutants than coal while outperforming other ‘white’ pellets.”
The company said it is selling the Robeson County facility to Phoenix Investors, a Wisconsin-based commercial real estate firm. Active Energy said it will use proceeds from the sale for its facility in Maine.
“We appreciate the support we have received from the community and its leaders in Lumberton and Robeson County,” Michael Rowan, chief executive of Active Energy Group, said in a statement. “We still believe there is significant opportunity for CoalSwitch in the region and look forward to future collaboration with the state.”
The Robeson County Cooperative for Sustainable Development says community activism helped to halt the project.
Environmental justice has long been a struggle in Robeson, one of the poorest, most violent and least healthy counties in the state. It is also one of the most diverse counties, as it is home to the Lumbee Native American tribe.
Native Americans make up about 37% of the county’s population, while white residents account for 25% and Black residents account for 22%, according to U.S. Census figures.
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“They choose Robeson and places like it because the general belief is that there’s not the capacity for opposition,” said Donna Chavis, a Lumbee and senior climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth.
Chavis and her husband, Mac Legerton, live in Robeson County and have spent years speaking out against industries that cause pollution in the area. Legerton is co-director of the Robeson County Cooperative for Sustainable Development, which helped lead the charge against the Active Energy project.
Voices from local residents, including those who spoke out during a public hearing for the Active Energy project, can give more oomph to lawsuits, according to Chavis.
“If it wasn’t for the local community, we may have come out of this, but it would have taken a lot longer and it would have been a lot riskier,” she said. “Because it would have appeared there was no opposition.”
While Active Energy will now be out of the picture in Robeson, some say there are concerns about other companies, including North Carolina Renewable Power in Lumberton.
Tyrone Watson, president of the Robeson County chapter of the NAACP, said local leaders need to focus on improving schools and reducing crime so the county will stop being a magnet for companies that use experimental energy practices.
“I think all of that has to be a top priority for the leadership in south Lumberton and throughout the whole county,” Watson said.
Stephens, the county commission leader who represents a region that includes south Lumberton, said one priority is to stop the neighborhood from flooding during storms. The area was damaged by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018.
And she would like to see a factory open up.
Phoenix Investors did not immediately return a request for comment on the company’s plans for the Active Energy site.
Stephens said her wish is for “something that’s paying enough money for people to live” – without causing pollution.
Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem