Drax faces prosecution over health risk of dust from biomass pellets

Allegations relating to employee safety at power plant sparks renewed criticism from environmentalists

Last modified on Thu 2 Sep 2021 09.56 EDT

The owner of the Drax power plant in North Yorkshire faces a criminal prosecution hearing after allegations that dust from wood pellets used to generate electricity could pose a risk to its employees’ health.

The company has earned hundreds of millions of pounds in subsidies by upgrading its generating units to burn biomass pellets instead of coal, but the Health and Safety Executive has raised concerns that the wood dust may have threatened employee health.

Drax will appear at Leeds magistrates court on 30 November to face the allegations as well as a separate charge that it breached risk assessment obligations before allowing employees to work with potentially “hazardous substances” at the plant.

A spokesperson for the company confirmed it had received notice of legal action from the HSE in relation to wood dust at the power station but said it could not comment further as it was an ongoing legal issue.

“The health, safety and wellbeing of our colleagues is a priority for Drax,” the spokesperson added.

The charges, which first reported by Sky News, have reignited criticism of Drax’ biomass strategy from environmentalists, who say burning wood pellets risks wasting multimillion pound subsidies and fuelling the climate crisis.

Drax received subsidies – which are levied on energy bills – totalling £790m in 2019 and £832m in 2020, according to analysis by climate thinktank Ember.

Phil MacDonald, Ember’s chief operating officer, told Sky News: “I very much hope that the health of workers has not been ignored as the UK has embraced biomass as a climate-friendly electricity source.

“The UK government needs to fundamentally reassess the costs and benefits of the technology before releasing new subsidies to the industry.”

Drax has defended its decision to replace coal with wood pellets in the past by claiming that biomass energy is carbon neutral because the emissions released are offset by biomass forests, which absorb carbon dioxide in order to grow. It plans to use carbon capture technology at its power plant to create “carbon negative” electricity in the future.

The claims are disputed by campaigners and climate scientists who have warned that forests cannot be replaced quickly enough to absorb the amount of carbon emissions needed to slow the climate crisis.

MacDonald said: “Looking at the bigger picture, the UK still treats burning wood in power stations as if it were carbon neutral, despite recent science demonstrating this is unlikely to be true.”

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