Waste-to-energy company suing Pinellas for $200 million

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A waste company is suing Pinellas County claiming they didn’t get a fair shake during a bidding process.

Pinellas uses a process called waste-to-energy to get rid of its trash. The garbage is incinerated at a plant on 118 Avenue and the energy created during that process is then sold to Duke Energy.

The county awarded a service contract to Veolia ES Pinellas in 2007 to run the county’s waste-to-energy program. In 2012 Veolia was dissolved into Green Conversion Systems, which has been running the program since.

In September, 2012 the county determined the contract GCS was operating under was no longer viable and began the process of opening bidding for a new contract. According to lawsuit documents, GCS would be considered during the request for proposal.

That didn’t happen.

Two companies were chosen based on numeric criteria on performance and financial backing – Wheelabrator Technologies Inc., which is owned by Waste Management, and Covanta. GCS scored the lowest of four companies.

The lawsuit seeks to force the county to consider GCS for a new contract to continue waste-to-energy operations in Pinellas County under a ten-year, nearly $1 billion contract.

According to the lawsuit, GCS alleges the county chose the two companies to bid for the contract with bias.

“This Complaint details a scheme developed and implemented by the County to fraudulently induce GCS into an amendment of its service contract based upon the County’s false representation that GCS would be permitted to participate in a full and fair procurement process. Instead, throughout the course of the procurement process, the County exhibited substantial bias against GCS, engaged in misrepresentations relating to GCS, breached the terms of the service agreement between them, and failed to follow the requirements of its own procurement procedure.”

Among its complaints is that the county incorrectly scored GCS. The company lost significant points based on financial viability. But in September 2012 a presentation to county commissioners during a public meeting stated that GCS had “substantial financial backing and access to technical resources that would benefit the facility.”

The company also alleges that if financial concerns are limiting the county’s confidence in GCS, the same concerns should also exist for one of the two top bidders in the procurement process.

Wheelabrator is in the process of being sold by its parent company Waste Management Inc. for $1.94 billion to Energy Capital Partners.

When that sale will be complete is unknown, but in a statement, Wheelabrator claims the sale is merely a change in ownership, not operation and therefore, “customers will receive the same continued excellent services they have received in the past.”

The county’s low scores for GCS are also based on performance measures. However, GCS claims in its lawsuit that it exceeded performance standards in its existing contract including electric sales and metal recovery.

They also boast high environmental standards. So far this year, no environmental violations have been reported compared to 2009-2012 when 1,290 emissions violations were reported.

GCS was even paid a series of bonuses at $125,000 a piece for meeting benchmarks.

The company is seeking more than $200 million in damages and reconsideration in the bidding process.

Officials in the county wouldn’t comment on the process because of ongoing litigation.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.