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Court Ruling Puts Controversial Eastern Kentucky Biomass Plant Closer to Reality

Industrial park in Hazard, KY. Jan. 29, 2014 (by Frankie Steele/Louisville Public Media)
Photographer: Frankie Steele
/
View from the site of the projected ecoPower plant.

Long-delayed plans to build a controversial biomass-fueled power plant in eastern Kentucky took a step forward last week following a ruling in Franklin Circuit Court.

Judge Thomas Wingate held that the Kentucky Public Service Commission acted legally and reasonably in October 2013 when it approved an agreement under which the Kentucky Power Co. would purchase all of the electricity generated by the biomass plant for 20 years -- even though that electricity would be substantially more expensive than other power-generating options.

The PSC’s decision came after the Kentucky General Assembly enacted legislation championed by state Sen. Brandon Smith of Hazard and specifically designed to facilitate the project. (Read KyCIR's report: How Politics, Misinformation, Money Fueled a Power Plant in Kentucky's Coal Country)

Actual construction of the plant, which would be located in Perry County, 11 miles northwest of Hazard, still is by no means a certainty.

Michael Kurtz, the Cincinnati attorney who filed suit on behalf of an organization of manufacturers that would be affected by the higher utility rates resulting from the biomass plant, said no decision has been made about taking the case to the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

“We’re disappointed. We still think we have a good case, that the project is a burden on consumers and will increase utility rates,” Kurtz said.

Gary Crawford, the chief executive officer of ecoPower Generation-Hazard LLC, the corporation formed in May 2009 to build the plant, did not respond to several requests for comment following the ruling.

In an interview last year, Crawford said no final decision on the project’s fate would come until the court case had run its course.

Following PSC approval of the agreement between Kentucky Power and ecoPower, an investigation last year by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found, seven ecoPower employees and family members thanked Smith by donating a total of $6,500 to his 2014 re-election campaign. None had ever given him as much as $100 previously.

KyCIR also found that eight prominent eastern Kentucky’s politicians, including Smith,

had issued misleading letters of support on the biomass project’s behalf. At least some of the letters were drafted by, or with the help of, Crawford of ecoPower and Smith.

Dr. Mary Booth, an ecologist and director of the Massachusetts-based Partnership for Policy Integrity, and who is a vocal opponent of biomass burning, expressed disappointment over the court ruling.

“I still think it’s a ridiculous way to generate energy, by cutting down trees,” Booth said.

Booth and other scientists contend that the plant’s emissions generally would be as polluting, and as harmful to environmental and human health, as those from coal-fired facilities that are being phased out to combat global warming.

Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at rdunlop@kycir.org or (502) 814.6533.

R.G. Dunlop is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has exposed government corruption and resulted in numerous reforms. Email R.G. at rdunlop@lpm.org.