Above: The German Pellets facility in Woodville pushes smoke in the air that residents say causes coughing.
One day in late November, a cloud of white smoke swept through Woodville, a small East Texas town of 2,500 about 55 miles north of Beaumont. It was a moment that many in town had been dreading: a literal smoke signal that the German Pellets processing plant was reopening. For two years, the wood-pellet facility had been shuttered — a respite from the coughing and hacking that many attribute to pollution from the plant. Over the next few days, folks in Woodville heard clanging inside the plant, and hulking machines picking up logs and moving them across the property. But most of all they smelled the smoke.
“It went all the way through town,” said Jimmy Reed, a 63-year-old retired mechanic who has lived about a mile-and-a-half from the facility since 1994. After German Pellets, a German company that compresses trees into wood pellets for use as biofuel, opened in 2013, Reed began noticing a haze around his property and seeing “dark stuff in the sky all the time.” He said he soon developed breathing problems, and a doctor diagnosed him with bronchitis. His solution for avoiding the polluted air? “I’m doing good now because I stay in the house all the time,” Reed said.
In October 2014, German Pellets conducted an internal audit showing it had exceeded state pollution limits tenfold by emitting 580 tons of ozone-producing gases at its Woodville facility when it was only allowed to release 64 tons. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) began requiring German Pellets to send quarterly reports, but to the astonishment of Woodville residents, the agency didn’t fine the company a penny. According to a TCEQ spokesperson, that’s because the company had “immunity” under a state “audit privilege” law; by agreeing to investigate itself, German Pellets would face no punishment, no matter what it turned up. After years of doing little in the way of regulation, TCEQ appears to be working toward a solution for Woodville’s pollution problem: forcing the company to install new pollution controls, a measure that environmental groups and 17 of the town’s residents had asked for in formal pleadings.
That’s notable for TCEQ, which has a history of letting industrial polluters off with a slap on the wrist while taking a hardline on small-time rulebreakers. Lone Star Legal Aid attorneys say that pressure from locals helped motivate TCEQ to take action. Now German Pellets is seeking a permit that would limit its annual emissions to just 26 tons, a 95 percent reduction from current levels. For Woodville residents, that’s welcome news, even though it will take months for folks to see the benefits of new pollution control equipment.
Lisa Sanchez, a 57-year-old grandmother of six who lives across the street from the facility, remembers the idled plant coming to life last month; the puff of smoke “smelled really bad and filled up my whole home.” When I reached her by phone last week, Sanchez said the smoke outside was so thick that it partially blocked the sun. Sanchez has developed respiratory problems since moving to what she thought would be her “dream home” in 2014. She’s prescribed prednisone, a steroid that treats inflammation, and sometimes coughs up dark yellow mucus. She’s “glad to hear” that TCEQ is finally taking action, but she’s had enough — the Sanchezes are putting their 4,000 square-foot home with a swimming pool and basketball court on the market come spring. “I’m getting out of here If I can. I just can’t keep dealing with this.”
The air in Woodville may get worse before it gets better: It’ll be two to three months until TCEQ issues a new permit that includes pollution controls to German Pellets. Putting the controls in place will take even longer. TCEQ’s regulatory approach has been even more anemic in Port Arthur, where German Pellets operates storage silos for its wood pellets. In April 2017, a massive fire broke out inside the silos. The blaze smoldered for two months, wafting smoke and dust into the city’s historically black West Side neighborhood.
“The smoke saturated not only the homes, but also cars, clothing and other personal belongings,” Lone Star Legal Aid attorney Amy Dinn wrote in a filing to the TCEQ last week. “Many residents could not sleep due to smoke and its smell entering their bedrooms.” Droves of the elderly were swooped out of the neighborhood by their children to escape smoke-related respiratory problems — one woman died shortly before her daughter could get to her, Dinn wrote.
Still, TCEQ determined in March that the fire had caused only “moderate harm.” Dinn argues that based on TCEQ’s own penalty schedule, the fine should have been between $165,000 and $765,000. Instead, German Pellets was fined just $15,000. “A slap on the wrist. Or a slap on the fingernail, I don’t even know,” said Colin Cox, also a Lone Star Legal Aid attorney.