When asked who in the packed room at the Dobbins Heights Community Center was a resident of Dobbins Heights at Tuesday’s meeting between members of the North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus and the two opposing sides on the issue of Enviva’s new Richmond County plant, virtually everyone in attendance — save for media, activists and corporate representatives — raised their hands.
When asked a follow-up question of who feels they have gotten enough information about the plant, only two raised their hands — one of them being Dobbins Heights Mayor Antonio Blue, half in jest.
Even though there was such a disparity in knowledge of the subject, only eight out of the roughly 40 community members present asked questions during the public comment portion of the meeting (not including two members of Concerned Citizens of Richmond County). Several of these statements were very brief, listing health and environmental concerns, but were very thin on substance.
One woman, Dobbins Heights resident Brenda David, asked Tavares Bostic, a local community leader, to read a handwritten letter for her.
“I have a lot of family here in Dobbins Heights, my children play at the park as well as play in their grandmother’s yard,” Bostic said, reading from David’s letter. “The health issues from this industry can cause big concerns for me, not only for my kids and family but for anyone who has to breath in this pollution.”
Bostic said he had spoken with others who had wanted to speak but didn’t.
County leaders and Enviva representatives, who partnered to build the plant out of an interest in providing jobs and economic opportunity to the community dating back to 2014, feel that they have provided ample opportunity for public comment.
Enviva ran several ads in the Daily Journal over the last three years, brokered an official announcement from then-Gov. Pat McCrory, and the subject of the plant was on the Richmond County Board of Commissioner’s agenda at least four times over the same period, according to meeting records available on the county’s website.
Karen Tripp, vice president of communications for Enviva, said in an interview with the Daily Journal that the company has offered nine opportunities for public comment.
Seeing no resistance until the past year from the Asheville-based Dogwood Alliance, county leaders question the uptick in opposition as the plant begins construction.
Bostic says there is a disconnection between those in leadership and those in the surrounding community.
“The issue is not that people don’t show up or don’t want to show up,” Bostic said. “The issue is that people are intimidated by the process of going to the county commission meetings.”
This pattern was noted by Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg, who said that the issue came down to a procedural issue, referring to whether what Enviva and state leadership did in terms of seeking public comment was enough to meet the requirements for a permit.
He added that affecting change requires those in the community to “step up” by following what elected leaders are doing and to vote them out of office if they don’t like it.
“All politics is local,” he said. “I don’t know your county commissioner(s), but I know one thing, if you don’t like them you should do what Trump talks about doing and fire them and get some new ones.”
Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, said after the meeting that he was left with the question of “how did we get here?”
“There was a breakdown somewhere to get to this point that could’ve been avoided,” he said.
Tripp, who has been at her position for three months, said Tuesday’s meeting showed that people “genuinely feel that they were not listened to.”
“That bothers me a lot because my only forum leading into these things is to speak to people through those people,” Tripp said. “So we…have to create a system which says, ‘Look if we’re going to come in and address the county commissioners, which can be a closed meeting or an open meeting, we’re going to hold a listening session afterwards for the public.’”
At this late stage, Alexander noted that the best-case scenario for those opposed to the plant is to constrain Enviva by stricter environmental standards.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, representing the Concerned Citizens of Richmond County, filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality in August alleging that the state issued construction permits to Enviva without meeting the necessary requirements of holding a public hearing, as well as not meeting state emissions standards. The lawsuit will be heard on Nov. 27.
Alexander said that based on what was said by Myra Blake, the attorney representing the Concerned Citizens, the group could win that lawsuit and still end up with a plant in Richmond County.
“This whole thing could end up being decided in the courts,” Pierce said.