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A Matter of Breathing

Peyton Thomas  /  November 1, 2023  /  8 Min Read  /  Trail Running

Running won’t solve the issue of wood pellet biomass pollution. But it can ignite community and conversation—and that’s a start.

EARTH run coverage, event in Gloster, MI October 2023.

All photos by Elroy Johnson

It’s 7:30 a.m. on the entrance road of Mississippi’s Homochitto National Forest, just over 30 miles from the nearby town of Gloster. Morning light has begun to hit the towering pines, oaks and hickories when the first bus of runners arrives. Pale sunbeams streak through the trees, turning the forest’s canopy a rich, golden green. Shadows play across the dirt singletrack that winds through these woods, mimicking the excitement in the air as the runners step down from the bus and filter into the Clear Springs Recreation Area. For now, the trails are quiet, but soon they will be filled with cheerful footsteps. Everyone is here to move in two of the simplest ways possible, running and walking.

In another sense, however, the crowd’s reason for being here is anything but simple.

Forests throughout the Southeast are increasingly a source of harm for those who live among them, thanks to wood pellet biomass—a fast-growing alternative energy export in the US. Trees and wood waste are pelletized and shipped overseas to European power plants that burn them to supply their grid. The industry is touted as a viable green energy substitute for coal, but the truth is complicated. Environmental groups have documented truckloads of whole trees on their way to biomass companies, despite industry claims that pellets are largely sourced from wood waste. Cutting down forests leads to habitat fragmentation, biodiversity loss and increased erosion and flooding.

What’s more, processing plants spit out air pollutants that research shows can cause a suite of respiratory and other health issues to those nearby. In 2021, the state of Mississippi fined a UK-headquartered company called Drax Biomass $2.5 million for emitting three times more air pollution than legally allowed. In Louisiana, Drax agreed to pay $3.2 million in state penalties over similar air pollution.

Pellet production often occurs in low income or Black communities where residents tend to be politically and socially disenfranchised—a common reality for heavy industry presence.

A Matter of Breathing

EARTH run coverage, event in Gloster, MI October 2023.

Gloster, Mississippi, is one such place. This town of roughly 1,100 is about 72 percent Black, with 38.5 percent of the population living below the poverty line, and has limited access to medical resources. (The median household income in Gloster is $18,814.) A UK biomass company called Amite BioEnergy, which is owned by Drax, operates a 2,548-square-mile wood-sourcing operation stretching across Southwest Mississippi and into northern Louisiana. This company also owns a processing plant about a mile from town.

Many residents speak of respiratory illness, cancer and unexpected deaths in the community, and little advocacy on their behalf. But they also rely on the biomass operation to pay for the town’s utilities.

“It’s good to have the plants here in Gloster, but we want them to protect us,” says Gloster resident Mabel Williams. “I’ve been seeing problems with people’s breathing and a lot of people have been sick. I heard that one lady who lived near the plant lost two babies. That affects the community.” Drax has twice violated air-quality standards and faced fines, but in those situations, funds often don’t reach the communities that are directly impacted by the pollution.

A Matter of Breathing

EARTH run coverage, event in Gloster, MI October 2023. Portrait of Mabel Williams.

I first found out about the harms of the biomass industry as a grad student in North Carolina. After seeing large swaths of cut forest firsthand, I learned about the biomass industry and decided to follow the examples of other runners who’d used their sport for activism. I wanted to create an event that would build community and encourage civic engagement against harmful biomass production. I began engaging on the issue through Dogwood Alliance and Southern Echo, which ultimately led me to Gloster. Together, the Gloster community and I created the Equitable Action Run Towards Health (EARTH): a forum for communal movement near the source of the very same extraction that is affecting those who live close by.

A Matter of Breathing

EARTH run coverage, event in Gloster, MI October 2023.

We chose to host the event at the Clear Springs Recreation Area. This campground is a portal to miles of public forest, but many of those who joined us said they had never visited its lake, walking paths and trails. In the Southeast, most land is privately owned, which makes recreation more difficult and biomass business a bit easier—because companies own the forests they’re cutting or lease them from the people who do. In Florida, North Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee, more than 174,000 acres of public land are surrounded by private property, with no public roads or trails to access it. Access issues have been exacerbated by a long, complex cultural tradition of excluding Black and brown people from the outdoors.

Many in Gloster speak about limited access to trails and recreation, and about not wanting to be in unfamiliar places without a trusted friend. Many share negative perceptions of the outdoors and have experienced fearmongering about where Black people are expected to be. In places like Gloster, you don’t hear people talking about going on adventures or taking sport-related risks because here, the outdoors come with a very different set of risks: that of violence from other people.

As a kid growing up in Georgia, I was headstrong and perhaps naïve in my resolve to experience the world as I wanted to, despite others’ warnings. My formative experiences as a runner were in places like this national forest. The backwoods of Georgia, North Carolina, Texas and Mississippi have greeted my feet and fueled my breath, curiosity and love for the environment. Though in the back of my mind, there has always been always a familiar concern.

Am I allowed to be here?

Am I safe?

Simply existing here comes with a threat of violence that’s rooted in the history of my ancestors’ enslavement.

For all of these reasons, I wasn’t sure if organizing a race was the right way to take on the environmental injustice of the wood-pellet industry. I’m a runner from the Southeast, but I’m also an outsider, trying to put on an event in a state and town that I’m not from, with people who need so much more than one person can provide.

A Matter of Breathing

Peyton Thomas running near Gloster, MS scoping a trail for the EARTH run.

My doubts mostly disappeared once the morning of the event arrived. The gathering was small, but the smiles and hugs were huge. Everyone was excited to move together. The 10-mile runners took off first, filling the road with the joyful sound of footsteps shuffling through leaf litter. Meanwhile, the 5- and 2-mile runners milled about, awaiting their start time and surveying the scene. Kids played around as adults helped pin their bibs. Dr. Krystal Martin, a local activist, passed out buttons bearing the slogan: “I want to breathe.” At 9:00 a.m. we sent the 5-mile runners off into the woods. An hour later, the 2-milers headed off on a path around the campground.

Community members cheered from the side of the road as children, parents and grandparents walked and ran together. Some of the participants were Gloster locals; some were concerned citizens who’d driven out from other parts of the Southeast simply because they wanted to learn, engage and connect. Even the shuttle bus driver, Mr. Bradley, decided to join in. This multigenerational bond is integral to the Gloster community. In the face of the hazardous air pollution caused by the pellet industry, everyone cares for everyone else.

A Matter of Breathing

EARTH run coverage, event in Gloster, MI October 2023.

Even wrong turns couldn’t sour the mood. An hour or so after start time, I learned that a couple of 5-mile runners had failed to check into the midway aid station. Both were seasoned runners, but new to trails. I took to the woods, tracing the course backwards and calling out into the wind, worried that this experience would ruin their perspective of trail running.

When I found them, both were smiling and laughing, and they eagerly recounted the experience of traversing through riverbeds, scrambling up and over logs and encountering wildlife. Their stories reminded me of my own wrong turns, and of the beauty of being lost in these places. As we ran and hiked the last 3 miles of the course together, we talked about everything from the beauty of the forest to the importance of protecting it and the need for women’s equality and leadership.

The EARTH run was never meant to be a takedown of the biomass industry. It was meant to be a source of conversation, a way for people to connect with others who they may otherwise have never known, a source of inspiration to spark deeper connections with these forests and an example of what collective action can look like.

I had spent months worrying over the event, constantly trying to explain to people how movement with others can be a spark for change—how the running community had done that for me. Hearing people get excited about discovering the forest together, and seeing the trails become a backdrop for meaningful conversation, was the truest measure of success.

Running won’t solve the complex push and pull over what constitutes sustainable industries and economies. But it is a source of empowerment and joy. And in the journey toward a clean and equitable future, that matters just as much.

Editor’s Note: Want to support Gloster, and similar communities, in the fight against the biomass industry? Head to earthgloster.com to donate and learn more.

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