News: The Woodshed

Lawmakers blast Cooper administration after state decision jeopardizes Robeson jobs

Slow permitting process, intentional slow-walking of approval could hurt one of North Carolina’s poorest counties.

arial view of Lumberton plant from Google Maps via Active Energy
arial view of Lumberton plant from Google Maps via Active Energy

When N.C. Rep. Brenden Jones, R-Robeson, Columbus, met with staff at the Division of Air Quality to try and resolve a permitting issue involving Active Energy, he quickly realized the project to manufacture wood pellets in Lumberton was in peril.

“You could tell the Department of Environmental Quality had no interest in this project and was trying to hold it up,” said Jones.

“It is clear the governor did not want the most impoverished county in the state to have these jobs,” he added. “Our so-called ‘jobs governor’ just proved he can create jobs for another state.”

Carolina Journal was first to report that delays in obtaining an air quality permit put a critical investment into Robeson County, one of North Carolina’s most economically distressed, at-risk, placing a minimum of 100 high-paying jobs on the chopping block.

Now, Active Energy has announced it will open a new plant in Ashland, Maine, intended to replace production from the stymied Lumberton plant. While Active Energy has tried to receive an Air Quality permit from the Cooper administration for more than 14 months, the company obtained needed permits in Maine in just five days.

Troy Jackson, president of the Maine Senate, said: “The State of Maine is excited for the prospects of CoalSwitchTM production at the Ashland Facility. The State of Maine wants to see new technologies developed for the biomass industry and assisting companies like PDI and AEG to develop new commercial, environmentally-friendly processes are our utmost priority.”

Active Energy also informed the London Stock Exchange that its Lumberton production plans are on hold and could be canceled altogether.

“With the recent construction delays for the Lumberton Reference Plant, the Board is now reevaluating the Company’s lumber and timber operations at Lumberton and the Company will update shareholders in the announcement of the Company’s results for the year ended 31 December 2020, which are expected to be released in the first half of June 2021,” Active Energy wrote in the notification.

“Normally the idea of a ‘Notice of Violations’ coming from air quality regulators would make you think there was a pollution event,” said Jon Sanders, research editor and senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies, at the John Locke Foundation. “In this case, however, our regulators appear to be objecting to the addition of three devices to reduce air pollution. That being the case, one would hope that the matter should be cleared up quickly and that it isn’t a ploy to slow-walk permitting to serve outside special interests.”

In an interview with Carolina Journal, N.C. Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson Columbus, did not hold back against the Cooper administration, for “needless delays.”

“I have worked very hard to decrease burdensome regulations that have created hardships to AEG and other companies making an effort to thrive in North Carolina,” said Britt. “Sadly, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and the governor’s administration has continued to stand in the way of yet another business who wants to contribute to North Carolina and provide much-needed jobs to the people of Robeson County. “

Longtime Robeson County advocate, businessman Bo Biggs, a past Lumberton Chamber of Commerce president, is dismayed about the likely cancellation of the Active Energy project in Lumberton.

“This is a heartbreaking development, especially after seeing so many job announcements in wealthy counties,” said Biggs. “We needed this project to be successful, to put some tax base and jobs on Robeson’s books. Much outreach to our community by AEG officials in an effort to be transparent, responsible corporate partners has been going on for weeks. They purchased an abandoned NAFTA impacted textile facility and were attempting to revive it. I’m disappointed but will try to be positive that AEG will not walk away, and the regulators will allow them to be a major industry in our county.”

Those 100 high-paying jobs will probably come to fruition in Maine. Robeson County is hoping for the best but preparing for the worst — the loss of a critical manufacturing project, which lawmakers, such as Rep. Brenden Jones, R-Robeson say, “could have been a game-changer for Robeson.”