Another hurdle for “dormant” Plant Washington

The Carbon Pollution Standards for new power plants announced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on August 3rd confirm that Plant Washington will not get a “pass”, adding yet another hurdle to the development of one of the last proposed new coal plants in the country.

The new standards rely on partial capture and storage of carbon dioxide emissions. Plant Washington project spokesman Dean Alford has said that such a standard will result in cancellation of the coal-fired project because it was not designed to meet the standard. To avoid that outcome, the project developer, Power4Georgians, LLC (P4G) sought to convince EPA that the project had “commenced construction” when the standards for new sources were first proposed in January 2014.  Under such circumstances, Plant Washington would be considered an existing source exempt from the new standards

Dean Alford
Dean Alford

But as Alford and P4G are now finding, there’s a difference between saying something and proving it.

Almost two years ago, in the draft version of the standards, the EPA specifically addressed Plant Washington and another proposed coal-fired plant in Kansas. The agency took the developers at their word that the plants were under construction and therefore qualified as existing sources.  But EPA also said that if either plant failed to qualify as an existing source, and was therefore classified as a new source, the agency would consider granting special standards due to the unique circumstances that both already had their construction permits.  The idea was that these two sources, the last two coal plants still supposedly under development in the country, would get special treatment – perhaps a standard less stringent than that applied to other new sources.  Otherwise the two lingering plants might not get built despite their “sunk costs.”

But last week, in the final rule, EPA said it is “unaware of any physical construction that has taken place at the proposed Plant Washington site,” and noted that a recent audit of the project had described it as “dormant.” EPA said it appears that Plant Washington did not commence construction when the new source rule was proposed, and would therefore likely be considered a new source should it ever be constructed.
 

The EPA pointed out that in October 2014, P4G received an 18-month extension on Plant Washington’s air permit from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. The EPA went on to say that the possibility of Plant Washington being built and operating is “too remote” to merit an exemption from the new carbon emission standards.

So Plant Washington is not an existing source.  But what kind of carbon standard will it get? Remember that EPA said it would give Plant Washington and the Kansas project their own new source carbon standards.  Well, on this point, EPA punted.  Why?  Because the agency views it as so unlikely that these projects will actually go forward that it doesn’t want to spend the time coming up with individualized standards.  In the agency’s words, “because these units may never actually be fully built and operated, we are not promulgating a standard of performance at this time because such action may prove to be unnecessary.”

Ouch. 

EPA puts the ball P4G’s court, telling the developer that it must formally request a determination of its status — new or existing —  before EPA can decide whether and what kind of standards should apply to its carbon emissions.

P4G has had the ability since January 2014 to seek this so-called “applicability determination,” which would clear up once and for all the question of its status under the new standards.  In fact, under Alford’s leadership, P4G sought such an “applicability determination” from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, but later chose to withdraw that request before the state agency could respond. Rather than clarify the project’s status, Alford opted to pursue an 18-month extension of the construction deadline under Plant Washington’s state-issued air permit. Alford got the extension, but this did little to convince EPA of P4G’s claim that the project had commenced construction in January 2014.  Instead, EPA arrived at the opposite conclusion: that Plant Washington is going nowhere fast.

Thanks to EPD’s generosity, Plant Washington still has 8 months left on its deadline to construct under the air permit.  But the project’s water discharge permit, another critical piece of the project, expired in March of this year. P4G failed to timely file an application to renew the permit prior to its expiration, prompting EPD to fine P4G.  EPD gave P4G thirty days to cure the defect but P4G missed that deadline as well.    These are not the actions of a project developer intent on meeting its construction deadline. 

And here in Washington County, there are no signs the coal-fire project is going forward, even at a snail’s pace. No ground has been broken, no Power Purchase Agreements have been announced, and no financier willing to pour the necessary billions into the project has emerged.

The EPA was correct in its refusal to exempt Plant Washington from the new carbon emission
standards.  The plant is not needed and would be a major source of carbon emissions.

Over 8.5 years have passed since this boondoggle plant was first announced, and its future is not one bit brighter than it was on the cold, gray, January day when it was unveiled. If Mr. Alford returns for yet another permit extension next year, the state would be wise to tell him that the final buzzer has sounded and no more time can be added to the game clock

Sleeping with the Enemy

The Friday Photo
June 26, 2015

Not a photo this week, but a fond remembrance, in two parts, of a campaign where a picture and few words told the story (It won a national marketing award for “Best Villian.” I wish I could claim the idea as my own.)

Sleeping with the Enemy frontSleeping with the Enemy back

The Fat Lady is looking through her sheet music

After 8.5 years, a lot of questions about Plant Washington, Cobb EMC, and Cobb Energy, a for-profit company created by Dwight Brown while he ran the state’s largest electric co-op, have been answered after a forensic audit conducted for Cobb EMC was released by Channel 2 News in Atlanta last week. (A forensic audit is a type of financial audit that is conducted concerning possible fraud or misconduct.)

The document, which includes a 150+ page Executive Summary, also shines a bright light on Plant Washington, which Washington EMC leaders spent $1Million pursuing. Allied Energy Services, run by Brown’s crony Dean Alford, holds a no-bid contract to develop Plant Washington.

The audit includes some big numbers. Dwight Brown and his wife Mary Ellen, received over $20Million in payments, loans, benefits, and preferred stock from Cobb EMC and Cobb Energy, a for-profit company, established in 1998 under Brown’s directive.

Brown’s private business partner and Vice-President at Cobb Energy, Dean Alford, hauled in about $18Million in payments and benefits, according to the audit.

Alford was selected by Brown to serve on the Cobb Energy Board. From there Alford landed CEO appointments to Allied Utility Network and Allied Energy Services, both owned by Cobb Energy. The auditors wrote that they, “found no evidence that Cobb Energy reviewed or approved any business plan for any of the businesses it acquired or created.” The audit states that, with the exception of perhaps two entities, neither of them being Allied Energy Services of Allied Utility Network, “all of the Cobb Energy spinoffs lost money, some on a grand scale.”

Cobb Energy gave Allied Utility Network $5.9M by moving money from the nonprofit Cobb co-op to Cobb Energy, the for-profit company that, according to the audit, was anything but a profit generator. The audit reports that Cobb Energy general ledger entries totaling $4M appear to have funded Allied Energy, but the bookkeeping isn’t precise (lack of clear bookkeeping records is just one of the many criticisms raised in the audit).

So what about Allied Energy Services, Plant Washington, and the group of co-ops, including Washington EMC, that organized Power4Georgians (P4G) to support Plant Washington (and another coal-fired plant to be located in Ben Hill County) that Brown and Alford were touting years ago?

Allied Energy Services, led by Alford, secured the no-bid contract to develop coal-fired Plant Washington, even though, as the audit states, “neither Alford nor Allied had any experience building or developing a coal-fired power plant, and witnesses indicated he was hired on the basis of a recommendation by Dwight Brown.”  Alford also heads P4G, which continues to promote Plant Washington even though all of the original EMCs that made up the consortium have ceased funding the project. P4G has already dropped plans for the second facility, which would have been called Plant Ben Hill.

Large tracts of land for both coal plant sites have been bought or tied up in contracts by several companies in amounts that totaled in the millions.

Where all that money came from is among the audit’s more interesting findings.

Monies paid to Cobb EMC by its members went to more than the for-profit companies owned by Cobb Energy. Both Alumni Properties LLC, which was involved in land acquisitions for the Ben Hill coal plant, and Buster and Brown, LLC, another private real estate venture, are linked to Dean Alford and his boss at Cobb Energy, Dwight Brown.

But there were even more land companies, including Ben Hill Timberland, LLC and Washington Timberland, LLC. Washington Timberland, LLC, as readers of Rural and Progressive may remember, has a history of late property tax payments in Washington County.

Dean Alford and P4G cancelled Plant Ben Hill over three years ago, but the audit raises questions about whether it was ever a real project.  The audit says that “Senior Cobb EMC officers…advised that Plant Ben Hill was a ‘decoy” designed as a subterfuge to keep land prices lower in Washington County.”

Which raises troubling questions about Plant Washington and whether it was ever a viable proposal, or merely a scheme designed to enrich P4G.  In January of 2012, Cobb EMC Board members ceased funding Plant Washington following a presentation by Alford, during which he said, “P4G never intended to build Plant Washington” and that, “P4G’s goal has always been to obtain the permits needed and then sell them to any interested party that could build the plant.”  Unfortunately, it took many more months before Washington EMC followed Cobb EMC’s lead.

I happened to attend the invitation-only announcement for Plant Washington at the end of January 2008. The event was attended by former Washington CEO Frank Askew, then CFO and now Washington EMC CEO Wendy Sellers, Washington County Industrial Development Authority Chair, and Sandersville Railroad stockholder Hugh Tarbutton, and other Tarbutton family members.  At that time, Alford was clear in stating that Plant Washington would be built, owned, and operated by P4G members to provide affordable power to co-op members.

“Senior Cobb EMC officers interviewed advised that Plant Washington is now dormant,” according to the audit.

There’s a lot of information to digest in the 150+ page audit, which was requested by the Cobb EMC Board members elected after Brown and his cronies were ousted from the electric co-op almost four years ago. Last week Cobb County Prosecutor Don Geary told Channel 2 News in Atlanta that additional criminal charges could result from the findings.

The audit concludes with this statement, “This report has clearly demonstrated that how the former CEO made business and accounting decisions from which he and his friends profited. There was no effective compliance and ethics program and no oversight on the part of the Board of either entity, Cobb Energy or Cobb EMC to stop the activities perpetuated by the former CEO.”

It is time for Washington EMC leaders to come clean with its members and the larger community about the waste of member resources that Plant Washington has been from the beginning. Members expect and deserve the truth. We must hold them, and all our county leaders, accountable for the boondoggle they signed us up for over 8.5 years ago.