CLEARWATER — Despite running Pinellas County’s waste-to-energy plant for more than a year, GCS Energy Recovery of Pinellas did not qualify to bid for a lucrative new contract to operate the facility for the next 10 years.
County officials who evaluated the four companies vying for the contract, worth a potential $35 million a year, told commissioners GCS lacked the financial stability and experience needed to run the largest mass-burn energy facility in the United States.
But at the same time, the county was awarding GCS bonuses for its performance, records show. GCS is in line to receive more than $100,000 this year as a reward for producing more energy and controlling emissions at the plant.
“We’re very upset that at the exact time staff are demonizing GCS, the same staff are writing checks to GCS for great plant operation and great environmental stewardship to the tune of $125,000 and more,” said Todd Pressman, a government affairs consultant for GCS.
GCS received monthly bonuses for keeping emissions from the plant, on 110th Avenue just south of Ulmerton Road, within levels set in its environmental permit. It also got a productivity bonus for exceeding baseline energy production by at least 1 percent.
County officials said those performance measures are written into GCS’ contract, which expires at the end of this year, but were not a factor in evaluating qualifications to run the plant long term.
“It’s not just saying they were performing better than they were performing six months ago,” said Kelsi Oswald, the county’s waste energy section manager. “We looked at the qualifications of the company, the qualifications of the staff, experience with similar technologies and amount of experience they have operating similar plants.”
Commissioner Norm Roche abstained from a vote in May authorizing the county to negotiate with the top two ranked companies because of his concerns that GCS was omitted. He said he had not been told about the bonuses and that other commissioners probably were unaware when they voted.
“That should have been brought to the discussion,” he said. “You’re telling me these guys are doing great. They’ve fixed the punch list. Everything’s fine. Yet we’re going out to request for proposal. Something is just not right here.”
GCS took over the plant in December 2012 after it bought out Veolia ES Pinellas. It was criticized for “poor maintenance and operating practices” in an annual operational report for the 2013 fiscal year by CDM Smith. GCS had a high turnover of staff and a high number of unscheduled boiler outages because it failed to conduct routine maintenance, the report states.
Oswald said GCS may have performed well in the short-term, but the county’s concern is the long-term investment and maintenance to keep the aging plant running and to maintain the revenue it generates. Electricity, which is generated by incinerating trash at temperatures of more than 2,000 degrees, is sold to Duke Energy and brings the county about $54 million annually.“Yes, they’re running our plant, which is great, but it is only one plant and only for one year; that gives it a lower rating than a company with 20 or 30 plants,” Oswald said. “A year is not a lot of experience; you haven’t dealt with the magnitude of issues that can arise.”
GCS has filed two formal protests with the county since being ranked out of the running for the new contract, arguing that the process was flawed and that county staff gave bad information to commissioners, leading them to make a bad decision.
The first was denied by the county’s purchasing department. The second protest was reviewed and denied by County Administrator Mark Woodard in June.
County officials have been in talks with Covanta Projects and Wheelbrator Technologies, the top two ranked companies, during the past two weeks to finalize a new service agreement. The two companies will submit cost proposals that will go before county commissioners, said Candis Mancuso, interim director of purchasing.