With yet another collapsed land deal, a fresh set of delays on financing decisions and a contract in limbo, some Lake County solid waste officials wonder if they are hearing the end of trash-to-ethanol.
But other Lake County Solid Waste Management District board members who support the plan have said they hold out hope a consortium of contractors will be able to buy the trash-to-ethanol interests from the developer who has failed to perform on a nearly four-year-old contract.
All these questions are swirling among county solid waste officials in the wake of word last week that the consortium and its potential investors will delay the process another several months, waiting to verify if the trash-to-ethanol technology proposed for the plant will produce a viable product.
At the solid waste board's Sept. 20 meeting -- one month after construction consortium representative Ed Cleveland asked the board for more time to buy trash-to-ethanol interests from Powers Energy -- Cleveland told the board his consortium was holding back on the business deal until verifying whether the technology will work.
It left board member and St. John Town Council President Michael Forbes exasperated, especially given that board members were then asked at the same meeting to consider allowing a transfer of the contract to Cleveland's consortium.
"We're being asked to consider a transfer to a group that is not ready to commit to the process," Forbes said at the meeting. "It's ridiculous."
A majority of the board ended up voting to "consider" allowing Cleveland's group to take over the trash-to-ethanol contract. Most of those votes came from board members claiming they were trying to hedge against Powers Energy possibly suing the board for unreasonably preventing a transfer of interests.
But now the board is back at a waiting game that turns four years old in November. Cleveland said the wait is to see whether a plant in Florida, using the same technology that would be used at the proposed Lake County plant, can produce viable fuel-grade ethanol.
That testing is still several months away, Cleveland said. And several board members have pointed out the Florida plant will at first be using yard waste to produce ethanol -- not municipal solid waste of the variety that would be used in the would-be Lake County operation.
Cleveland has said the Florida plant, being constructed by INEOS Bio, which owns the technology, has plans some time in the future to use municipal solid waste as a feedstock.
But board member and Schererville Town Councilman Hal Slager said that means additional delays to test the viability of a project promised years ago.
"The feedstock at Vero Beach (Florida) will not be trash," Slager said at the Sept. 20 meeting. "The big elephant in the room is, will it work with our feedstock?"
Slager said all the inconsistencies, missed deadlines and uncertainties for the trash-to-ethanol project -- which he once supported -- do not "bode well for the viability of the project."
"It's time to cut bait," said Slager, who voted against considering a transfer of the contract to the consortium.
Board member and Griffith Councilman Rick Ryfa said recently that if Powers had asked the board earlier this year for an additional four to five months to see if the technology would prove successful, "we probably would have thrown him out."
No land, no deal?
At the beginning of the year, the board voted to find Powers Energy owner Earl Powers in breach of contract for failing to construct and operate a trash-to-ethanol plant more than three years after signing a contract with the waste district to do so.
Among other benchmarks, which included securing financing for the plant, Powers was required to show proof of secured land in Schneider on which to build the plant.
Board members demanded this after a previous option Powers had to purchase land in Schneider expired, and the land went back on the market.
Earlier in the summer, Powers reported to the board he had again secured on option to buy land from the Huber Ranch Sod Nursery in Schneider. Powers representatives also said at that time that earnest money had been placed down to secure the land.
However, Cleveland conceded earlier this month the option again expired, and the earnest money was lost.
Solid waste board Chairman Rick Niemeyer, who also serves as a Lake County councilman, reminded Cleveland at the Sept. 20 meeting a viable land deal was required in the past board edict. Niemeyer was one of six board members who voted against considering a transfer of the contract to the consortium.
On Friday, Niemeyer reiterated his frustration regarding news the land option had expired.
"Realistically, do they even have a place to go forward with this contract?" Niemeyer asked, noting for-sale signs are still posted at the proposed land site. "Having land to build on is one of the most important aspects of this project."
Representatives from the Huber sod farm did not return Times calls seeking comment.
Holding out hope
Even with these snags, a majority of board members hold out hope the consortium can successfully buy Powers' INEOS Bio license and bring the trash-to-ethanol project to fruition.
Trash-to-ethanol proponents and board members Gerry Scheub, a Lake County commissioner, and Phil Kuiper, Lowell's Town Council president, have said they believe the consortium deserves a chance to make it happen.
They continue to cite the hundreds of union construction jobs the project would create and a large cost savings to taxpayers with a consolidated trash-processing rate.
"My level of confidence in this project went up quite a bit when they (the consortium) came to the board and said they wanted to take it over," Scheub said. "They are looking at this project very seriously.
"Earl (Powers) is gone now, and that's good for Lake County. He dropped the ball."