Garbage-to-ethanol plant proposed for Northwest Indiana

But there's concerns over liability for home county.

November 24, 2010

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Northwest Indiana county wants to be one of the first in the country to turn household garbage into ethanol fuel, but to make that happen, the county may have to actually own the plant. Some say that’ll expose taxpayers to liability and, what’s worse, the county isn’t being forthcoming about financial risk.

 

Maybe you remember the closing scene near the end of the classic film Back to the Future. 

The one where Doc Brown arrives and insists Marty McFly go with him. Doc then quickly grabs garbage in front of Marty’s house and tosses into a contraption to fuel the time machine – a DeLorean sports car.

The scene’s kinda inspiring to at least one government official. It’s the idea of taking garbage, turning that into ethanol … and running your car.

LANGBEHN: This is absolutely what that is.

Jeffrey Langbehn heads the Solid Waste Management District of Lake County, Indiana.

LANGBEHN: In the DeLorean, they had a radioactive thing. This is not radioactive of course. It just so happens that they are using our waste, which is a very large problem to the communities, as its fuel source. This will change the way we as society handle our waste stream.

It sounds farfetched but an Indiana company called Powers Energy of America says it can do it.

Powers Energy could spend 280-million dollars to build the facility in Schneider, Indiana, about 90 minutes south of Chicago.

The plant could create hundreds of temporary and permanent jobs. But here’s the wrinkle: Lake County Indiana would own this garbage-to-ethanol facility.

The idea would be to ensure that the plant can get enough garbage to produce fuel.

No other local government in the country’s done this.

That has some concerned, including the county sheriff, Roy Dominguez.

DOMINGUEZ: I’m against the co-ownership. I’m against taxpayers’ liability because the taxpayers should not be used as collateral in order for a private venture.

And Dominquez is galled by something else …The county hasn’t released notes about a conversation about liability.

DOMINGUEZ: And, if we’re co-owners, why would you keep us out of that information?

SCHEUB: This is the most transparent thing I have ever been involved in 34 years in office.

That’s Gerry Scheub, chairman of the county waste board. He says Dominquez has it wrong. The county wouldn’t be at risk. Scheub says regardless, nearly every aspect of the ethanol-to-garbage facility has been done openly. He says only one portion was closed to the public.

Officials had talked in private about a potential lawsuit from a waste hauler. After all, if the ethanol facility takes all the county’s garbage … land-fill owners would lose out.

Scheub says this was during a so-called “executive session and these are allowed under Indiana law.

SCHEUB: Transparency has been there but when you have an executive session, that’s the right of every governmental agency in the United States. They do it every day. The state ruled that our executive session was legal. There was no vote taken. There was only one thing discussed were the potential lawsuits against the county. So, there was nothing wrong or illegal.

And he’s right. Executive sessions are meant for touchy discussions like this. But Sheriff Dominguez believes even private talks shouldn’t be allowed in this instance.

DOMINGUEZ: If you’re sued, that has to do with financial liability. Right? I mean that’s what you are going to sue you for: Monetary damages or compensation. And if there is no liability and there is nothing for us to worry about, why not tell us what the legal advice is?

Dominquez isn’t the only one asking questions about secrecy; others in the county are asking them, too. It’s been enough that Lake County Indiana’s solid waste board is now thinking twice about owning the garbage-to-ethanol facility.

It could make up its mind next month.