Friday, January 23, 2009

Tallahassee biomass plant withdrawn

By Bruce Ritchie

A Georgia company says it has decided to withdraw a proposed biomass electric plant on Florida State University land in Tallahassee that had raised ethical questions about FSU President T.K. Wetherell and his wife's involvement in the company.

The Biomass Gas & Electric LLC project was to be located on 21 acres of FSU land in southwest Tallahassee. Wetherell's wife, former Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Virginia Wetherell, said last year she was a partner in the company.

The plant would heat wood to produce gas and would have been the first such biomass gas plant in Florida, according to DEP. Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007 praised the technology as a needed source of renewable energy for Florida.

Some opponents, while claiming the project would cause noise, odors and air pollution, also said there was a conflict of interest between the Wetherells and FSU. Virginia Wetherell last year denied such accusations, saying the governor and Cabinet, not FSU officials, decided to lease the university land for the plant.

But this week, the local NAACP branch in Tallahassee asked Gov. Charlie Crist to investigate whether there was any wrongdoing. The Tallahassee City Commission was scheduled to hold a hearing next week on FSU's proposed master plan, which includes the biomass plant.

In a letter delivered Friday to city officials, BG&E President and CEO Glenn Farris said Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor and opponent Erwin Jackson had launched a "divisive smear campaign intended to kill the truth and the best interests of the community." The letter made no reference to the conflict of interest accusations.

"Proctor and Jackson exploited this project to divide the community for their own personal and political gain," Farris said.

Company officials said the plant would produce 200 construction jobs and would be a part of the green energy initiative supported by President Obama.

In addition to facing opposition from the NAACP, the Council of Neighborhood Associations in Tallahassee this week voted against supporting the biomass plant at its proposed location.

Neither T. K. Wetherell, a former House speaker, nor Virginia Wetherell, a former state representative, could be reached for comment on Friday.

FSU spokeswoman Browning Brooks said Friday that Wetherell recently stated that his only comment is there was no foundation to the personal accusation. Brooks also said FSU attorneys are reviewing the letter sent this week to Crist.

A DEP spokeswoman said the permit application for the plant has not been withdrawn and that a legal hearing remains scheduled for June 15-19. If the project is relocated, a new permit application would have to be filed.

Jackson, who owns 75 to 100 rental homes in southeast Tallahassee, said he wants the DEP permit application to be withdrawn before he is sure the project will not be built. He said

"He (Farris) has now hopefully been run out of Tallahassee," Jackson said. "If I had a small part to do with that, I am pleased."

Tallahassee Mayor John Marks said the city would continue would continue to pursue biomass projects. Farris said in his letter he still intends to sell power from the plant to the city and is discussing a site with another community, which wasn't named.

Marks also said the plant was never a city project, although the city had agreed to buy power from BG&E. Asked whether there were any lessons to be learned from the controversy, Marks said, "The community has to be fully informed about the nature of the project. I'm not sure under these circumstances they got everything."

Text copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie
Photo of the McNeil Generating Station in Burlington, Vt., courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory

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