Advisers face scrutiny over project ties

Criticism unleashed ahead of board decision

By: Tara Ramsey, staff writer//February 15, 2011//

Advisers face scrutiny over project ties

Criticism unleashed ahead of board decision

By: Tara Ramsey, staff writer//February 15, 2011//

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It’s a question of conflicts of interest.

On the one hand, some are wondering why two people employed by Calor Energy, a consultant for developers of a proposed plant that would burn Mecklenburg County’s trash, are allowed to sit on panels tasked with vetting the project.

On the other hand, the county’s Waste Management Advisory Board says it just wants to hear all sides — pro and con — when considering the plant, which is slated to be part of Charlotte-based Forsite Development’s ReVenture Park project on a Superfund site in western Mecklenburg County.

The perceived conflicts of interest, just another twist in the ongoing saga of the controversial plant, has prompted some, such as Sustain Charlotte Executive Director Shannon Binns, to take their concerns to the WMAB and county commissioners.

“I couldn’t take it anymore,” said Binns, who emphasized that he was speaking on behalf of himself and not Sustain Charlotte. “When I see an injustice, I just can’t sit back.”

With opposition against the project refusing to go away, some have even created a Facebook group, “ReThink ReVenture Park,” which had 83 members, including Binns, as of Thursday.

But it’s unclear what impact, if any, the concerns will have on an expected vote today by WMAB members on whether to recommend that the Board of Commissioners approve the plant.

Binns and others argue that Ollie Frazier and Rich Deming, members of the WMAB, should not be allowed to sit on the panel because of their ties to ReVenture. Frazier was also a member of the ReVenture Park Advisory Council.

Calor, Frazier and Deming’s employer, is Forsite’s consultant for the project.

The WMAB formed the advisory council, which is made of WMAB members and residents, and tasked it with researching the plant. Plans called for the advisory council to make its recommendation to the WMAB, which would then make a recommendation to the county’s commissioners.

On Jan. 14, the advisory council recommended to the WMAB approval of the plant.

Frazier and Linda Ashendorf, who handles government services for Phoenix-based Republic Waste Services, the company that operates the Charlotte Motor Speedway Landfill, disclosed their potential conflicts of interest to the advisory council prior to the Jan. 14 vote. Frazier voted in favor of the project, and Ashendorf voted against it.

The advisory council voted 8-3 to recommend the project to the WMAB, which then formed committees to complete a “decision-making” form that details how advisory board members arrived at their decision about the plant. Frazier and Deming sit on four of seven committees.

Binns also points out that Jeremy O’Brien, director of applied research for the Solid Waste Association of North America, sits on two of the WMAB committees and was a member of the advisory council. Binns said that because SWANA promotes the use of waste-to-energy plants like the one proposed for ReVenture, O’Brien could be biased as well.

Binns said members with a conflict of interest should not be involved in WMAB deliberations about the project.

But Deming, who called the controversy “much ado about nothing,” said the board would be reduced to approximately nine members if everybody with a conflict recused themselves from the deliberations. He said there are just as many WMAB board members who own or work for a company that would consider ReVenture as their competition.

Deming, who first applied to be on the WMAB a year and a half ago, said he identified Calor as his employer and said he would not vote on ReVenture Park during his first meeting on the board in January.

Deming said the controversy is frustrating because the WMAB and advisory council positions are unpaid and include many neighbors of the park and other residents.

O’Brien said all WMAB and advisory council members have been upfront about any potential conflicts, but he said his employment with SWANA does not make him biased.

SWANA, a trade association with 7,500 members, represents all aspects of the solid-waste industry, including recycling, landfilling and waste-to-energy, he said.

“By definition, I cannot be biased toward any one facet of solid-waste management,” he said. “But it is correct to say that I’m for waste-to-energy because of its benefits, just like I’m for recycling because of its benefits.”

‘Unequivocal conflict’

Among those to whom Binns has taken his concerns is Allison Warren, WMAB vice chairwoman.

When Warren e-mailed Forsite to fill out one of the decision forms, Binns wrote to her in an e-mail: “Given that two paid ReVenture contractors are filling out these templates already as members of the committees … I think your concern, Allison, is already being more than adequately addressed. In fact, I am having a hard time understanding why this is even being permitted given their unequivocal conflict of financial interest in the board’s recommendation.”

Warren responded to Binns by saying that WMAB members who have conflicts of interest are required to recuse themselves from voting.

“Officers of the WMAB are not privileged to pick and choose who among our membership may give input on a given issue,” she wrote in a Feb. 4 e-mail to Binns and the WMAB board. “Please note that several of our members have business conflicts on both sides of ReVenture, and others have roles or associations with organizations that have a clear in-going bias. We view these differences of experience as a positive, as it allows us to reach deep into all sides of an issue and gain materials and expertise that we would otherwise not be able to as a citizen board.”

Brett Rhinehardt, a former member of the WMAB and the chairman of the advisory council, said in a subsequent e-mail to Warren that he supports the WMAB process because it gives everyone a voice but only allowed those without a direct financial interest to vote.

Calls to disband council

The advisory council met 10 times for more than 30 hours from October to January. It received 450 pages of documents during the meetings, with links to thousands of more pages online, Rhinehardt said.

But that doesn’t make Binns or Bill Gupton, head of the local Sierra Club, feel any better about the process.

Gupton said the advisory council’s recommendations were biased. And both men believe the advisory council should be disbanded and another council formed to evaluate the project. Binns suggested another option: allowing an independent third-party organization to evaluate the technology for the county commissioners.

Gupton, in a Feb. 8 e-mail to the commissioners, said the Sierra Club requested to be included in distribution e-mail lists for the WMAB but was denied.

Gupton also claims he requested the decision-making form used by the WMAB but was denied. Warren criticized him after the Sierra Club filled out an advisory council decision-making form.

“You choose to use the RAC template which was not distributed to you nor intended for any outside use, even after we denied your request after the 1/25 meeting,” Warren wrote in a Feb. 5 e-mail to Gupton. “You chose to exploit our e-mail list, and you chose to distribute your document in the guise of our internal working template without our knowledge or sanction.”

Warren said that until documents are read into WMAB’s records, they are not public.

‘I wanted every voice’

Rhinehardt stands behind the advisory council process that included those with ties to the plant.

“I wanted every voice at the table,” he said. “I wanted people in favor of the technology and people opposed to the technology, people in favor of new jobs and people opposed to increased traffic.”

Rhinehardt said the advisory council represented a wide variety of experiences and opinions. He said it included a waste-to-energy nationally recognized expert in O’Brien, an industrial-materials-recycling expert in Rita Plyler, a county “recycler of the year” award winner in Elaine Powell, a member of the local chapter of the Sierra Club in Jennifer White, a solid-waste and civil engineering professor in John Daniel, a member of the Catawba Riverkeeper organization and Mountain Island Lake Marine advisory board member in Alice Battle, a solid-waste engineer and solar farmer in Chris Hardin and members of the corporate community.

“So, frankly, look at the spread of experience just in that group,” said Rhinehardt, whose Charlotte-based company eCycleSecure handles electronics recycling. “I think it’s important for people to know that this was a very diverse, very well-informed group of people that I had the honor to serve with. You couldn’t pick a better group. There’s very much a misconception that this was a hand-picked ReVenture group, and it was very much not.”

Tara Ramsey can be reached at [email protected].

Who’s who

Key players in the ongoing ReVenture Park plant saga

Waste Management Advisory Board (WMAB): A Mecklenburg County group created to get input from residents on solid-waste-management issues

ReVenture Advisory Council: Formed by the WMAB to research the technical aspects of a waste-to-energy plant at ReVenture Park

Forsite Development: The company developing ReVenture Park, a proposed 667-acre eco-industrial project in western Mecklenburg County

Calor Energy: A consulting company that is working with Forsite on the ReVenture project

Shannon Binns: Sustain Charlotte executive director

Bill Gupton: Chairman of the Central Piedmont chapter of the Sierra Club

Ollie Frazier: Subcontractor for Calor and a ReVenture consultant

Rich Deming: Energy analyst for Calor and a ReVenture consultant

Linda Ashendorf: In charge of government services for Republic Waste Services, which operates the Charlotte Motor Speedway Landfill

Jeremy O’Brien: Director of applied research for the Solid Waste Association of North America

Allison Warren: WMAB vice chairwoman

Brett Rhinehardt: The chairman of the ReVenture Advisory Council; owner of eCycleSecure, an electronics recycling company; and a former member of the WMAB

Source: Mecklenburg Times staff research

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