USDA’s Toxic Romance with Wood Pellet Industry: A Challenge to Biden’s Green Pledges?

Kids in North Carolina can’t enjoy a day at the park because they’re being choked by wood dust. An unsettling image, isn’t it? Yet it’s a stark reality that flies in the face of the bold environmental justice promises made by President Biden, particularly as it implicates his very own U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In a ceremonial event held in the Rose Garden on April 21, 2023, Biden made a historic commitment to environmental justice with the signing of his executive order, “Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All.” Hailed as one of the most far-reaching actions of any president on this issue, it promises stricter oversight of chemical plants, fossil fuel projects, and other pollution sources that disproportionately affect poor communities and communities of color.

At the signing ceremony, the president’s words echoed the anxiety of parents fearful of letting their children play outside or drink tap water due to uncontrolled pollution. But the fight against these injustices, Biden recognized, is far from over.

While the pledge is a step in the right direction, the credibility of Biden’s administration is called into question when considering the actions of the USDA. The same week the President announced his environmental justice commitment, senior USDA officials were abroad promoting the business of the infamous wood pellet industry—an industry that has garnered substantial criticism from communities and environmental justice organizations from North Carolina to Mississippi.

Alexis Taylor, the USDA’s Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs led a delegation to the Netherlands, championing the burning of U.S.-manufactured wood pellets in Dutch power stations. This push for wood pellets, largely seen as an alternative to coal, ignores persistent warnings from scientists about their potentially detrimental impact on the climate.

Over the last decade, the southern U.S. has transformed into the globe’s top exporter of wood pellets. Tragically, wood pellet mills are predominantly established in communities already burdened by environmental injustices. Residents, including innocent children, face significant respiratory health risks due to the toxic air pollution these mills emit.

In Dobbins Heights, North Carolina, for instance, wood dust prevents children from playing outdoors. These communities are also grappling with worsened flooding due to extensive deforestation, exacerbating their vulnerability to climate change.

Despite the mounting controversy, the USDA persists in using taxpayer funds to persuade the Dutch government to continue buying these Southern-made wood pellets. This directly contradicts Biden’s environmental justice ethos and betrays rural, low-wealth communities of color that should instead be safeguarded by clean air and forest protection policies.

The Dutch Parliament is taking a stand, having passed a resolution in December 2022 to halt business with greenwashing wood pellet companies. This is a significant stride in curtailing the expansion of this destructive industry and its consequent environmental injustices.

As President Biden proclaimed, “To lead the world, we have to start here at home.” It’s time for the USDA to heed these words and match the President’s commitment to environmental justice. The agency’s alignment with Biden’s inspiring vision could turn these pledges from mere rhetoric to a tangible reality for communities affected by this devastating industry.