May 15, 2013

KITCHELL: Waste-to-energy a big waste of time

By Dave Kitchell

— Had all of Logansport attended the Indiana Society of Professional Journalists Awards ceremony last month in Indianapolis, we all would have learned that the No. 1 editorial written in the state in the past year was about a subject that sounds familiar to Logansport residents.

Doug Ross of the Times of Northwest Indiana, once the Pharos-Tribune’s sister newspaper, won for his editorial urging the Lake County Solid Waste District Board to give up on a $300 million proposal to turn trash into ethanol. He contended the proposal was made by a man who had been given a long time to make good on a proposal, which never got the funding it needed to get off the ground. There had been the promise of economic development and jobs created through the proposal, but it never happened.

As a matter of record, the board eventually did just what the Times called for in the editorial, giving up on the concept after years of waiting. It became a case of a waste-to-ethanol proposal that simply turned into wasted time spent on something that sounded a little bit too good to be true. Google stories from the paper and you’ll find the good folks in Lake County have changed their mind and will now entertain a broader spectrum of proposals.

In Lake County, a predominantly Democrat-controlled set of public officials stood by the proposal for years. In Logansport, a Republican-dominated administration is standing behind a proposal from Pyrolyzer LLC to turn trash into electricity for the Logansport Municipal Utilities at a cost of at least $450 million over 20 years. How long they’re willing to play this hand out remains to be seen.

But there is no willingness from the administration or the city council majority to consider other proposals. In fact, the Logansport Utility Service Board has been asked by Pyrolyzer’s Kentucky attorney to forego its plans to ask for proposals for back-up plans in case Pyrolyzer’s negotiations with Logansport fall through. That may be good news for now for Pyrolyzer, which has no trash-to-power plants in the United States and may be buying time to secure financing, but bad news for Logansport ratepayers. Why?

Had the Indiana Municipal Power Agency (IMPA) been granted its opportunity to make a proposal to the board as originally planned, local officials would have learned that IMPA would absorb most all of the $14 million cost of upgrading the interconnection LMU has with the outside power grid. If the city would simply join IMPA, which already has 59 members in Indiana, ratepayers wouldn’t have to pay the cost, which amounts to approximately $890 per ratepayer for LMU’s 15,690 billable customers. As it stands now, LMU or Pyrolzyzer will have to pay the interconnect fee, which means the cost will be passed on to us. Be prepared to swallow hard when those blue-and-white LMU bills come in the mail. Be prepared to pay for that cost every time you patronize a restaurant, a store or go to the doctor’s office in the LMU service area. It’s a cost that will be absorbed by schools, the public library, county government, nursing homes, supermarkets, the hospital and everyone who can turn a light on in this community. We won’t be paying once for this $14 million project. We’ll be paying over and over again.

The audacity of this process is that the public policy discussion in this debate over alternatives to Pyrolyzer is apparently being muted by the attorney for Pyrolyzer according to a memo and information released at the board’s last meeting. Mind you, Pyrolyzer has never generated so much as a AAA battery worth of power in this state, let alone managed a $450 million plant anywhere in this country. Why is a private attorney in another state able to dictate what a public board in Logansport does, or even considers? Good question. That shouldn’t happen, but apparently city officials from the mayor to the city council are allowing private profiteers to have their way with the public interest, and even more gravely, the public good.

It’s ironic that consultants from William-Lynn-James in Franklin have to drive near several IMPA cities every time they come to Logansport. It’s ironic that if Logansport joined IMPA, we also wouldn’t have to pay William-Lynn-James to consult or wait years to build a new power plant before we all could realize lower electric rates. In fact, IMPA has renegotiated power contracts with cities that have been Duke Energy customers like Logansport.

But that’s not something Logansport officials either want to know, or want their constituents to know, and they don’t want to know about proposals from Wabash Valley or MISO either. The council and mayor have hijacked the responsibility of the Utility Service Board, and this is a real local government tragedy. Is it any wonder that Cass-Logansport Economic Development Organization President Connie Neininger left after only six months on the job? I can’t say that I blame her. Who’s next?

The mayor’s Public Forum letter in Sunday’s edition of the Pharos-Tribune was interesting in one respect – his disclosure that polygraph tests are being used to hire police officers. If polygraph tests were used to hold our city officials accountable now, their answers might be revealing. Among the questions we might want to ask while they are tethered to a polygraph is “Will you or have you been offered a job with Pyrolyzer if the plant is built?” and “Would you admit that Pyrolzyer is not the best course for the city to pursue if an IMPA presentation at a public board meeting proved to be a better option for the city?”

I think we already know the answer to the second question, even without the polygraph.

Better order a polygraph with a warranty and lots of ink.

Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at