Clark County pays out on biomass project




Clark County commissioners have agreed to make a $292,500 payment to Schneider Electric, a company that held a contract with the county to build and operate a biomass plant. The money is to settle a contractual dispute stemming back to 2011.

The plant was to be fueled by timber byproducts and provide power to the county’s downtown campus. But the project was scrapped in November 2011 after several setbacks, including the project losing the ability to apply for a U.S. Department of Treasury grant because the city of Vancouver ruled that a biomass plant was not allowed in the location the county desired.

That ruling was eventually overturned by a hearings examiner, but the city had already put in place an emergency six-month moratorium on the development of the plant.

Rather than fight the city, Schneider Electric elected to opt out of the contract. Under the opt-out clause, the county was liable for up to $395,000 of Schneider Electric’s expenses.

The $292,500 payment was recommended by an independent mediator as a way to end the dispute over the value of work completed in the planning phases of the project. Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke approved the payment as part of the commissioners’ consent agenda on Tuesday. Commissioner Steve Stuart was ill on Tuesday.

The contract was originally approved by Mielke and Commissioner Marc Boldt, who is no longer on the board. Stuart opposed the contract at the time, saying he saw issues with how the city was responding to the project and with language in the contract that allowed Schneider Electric to opt out and still be paid.

“It just wasn’t a good contract,” Stuart said. “It was one-sided in their ability to get out and get paid. And that is what they did. I don’t blame (Mielke and Boldt) for it, but that is the reason I didn’t sign it.”

Mielke said he’s frustrated by the payment, but said he believes the biomass plant was a viable power option for the county.

“I still believe it was a viable project,” Mielke said. “But here we sit with egg on our face because we tried to do the right thing.”

Mielke said the dispute over how much was owed came after commissioners signed off on work for a second phase of development just before a Friday deadline.

“Then on Monday they terminated the contract,” Mielke said. “I’m not happy with this, with the number (we have to pay), but it’s a business decision.”

Mielke also said he intends to meet with the city of Vancouver over the matter to discuss what role they played in the broken contract.

“We believe the city has some liability in this,” Mielke said. “They soured the water, so to speak.”

Mielke said he doesn’t have a figure for how much he thinks the city should pay, saying “we need to talk to them first.”

Mielke said it is unlikely the county will consider a plant in the downtown Vancouver area again, but he still sees viability in biomass. One option, Mielke said, is to consider locations near Chelatchie Prairie.