I am confident that many of my devoted readers will be joining me at Leeds Magistrates Court at 10am on November 30. That is when Drax, whose power station in Yorkshire is the largest in the UK burning woody biomass, is facing criminal prosecution from the Government’s Health and Safety Executive. This follows concerns that dust from its wood pellets is (allegedly) posing a risk to employees’ health.
The company is also accused of breaching risk assessment obligations before allowing employees to work with these potentially ‘hazardous substances’. The charge is that it is exceeding a workplace limit on wood dust exposure, with insufficient control measures, including dust extraction, respirators and skin checks.
Originally built to burn coal, Drax now survives via its multi-million pound government subsidies each year (£790m in 2019, £832m in 2020). Amid policies designed to phase out fossil fuels, biomass use in the UK is surging, generating 12% of UK electricity in 2020. Even though burning biomass releases greenhouse gases, it is classified as “renewable” because plants can suck up gases like carbon dioxide as they re-grow.
In the early years of biomass, some hoped only waste products would be burned, which would have soon decomposed and released carbon anyway. However, a huge industry of harvesting trees for wood pellets has emerged – and this is how Drax sources much of its business.
Long-standing readers will recall that back in 2018, I wrote about a formal letter from 800 distinguished scientists sent to the European Parliament. It warned that using wood deliberately harvested for burning would increase carbon in the atmosphere and cause warming for decades, even when wood replaces coal or oil, and even if the forest management is ‘sustainable’. And even presumably if its users manage to comply with all health and safety requirements.