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Brooke County power plant project may be in jeopardy

PUSHING FOR PLANT — Representatives of area trades groups gathered outside the Brooke County Courthouse Tuesday to demonstrate their support for a proposed power plant in Brooke County. (Photo by Warren Scott)

WELLSBURG — The Brooke County Commission has enlisted the aid of state legislators and industry and labor leaders in urging support for a proposed power plant after learning the project may be jeopardized by the lack of a state loan guarantee.

County Commissioner Stacey Wise noted the natural gas fired plant has been in development for a few years and appeared to be on track for construction until the commission learned the state Economic Development Authority hasn’t agreed to assume the debt for a $5.6 million private loan for the project should its developers be unable to repay it.

Wise and others said the guarantee would be a show of support from the state and is vital to the project moving forward.

County Commissioner A.J. Thomas said, “It’s my understanding that if we don’t get that support, the project will in essence be dead.”

The commissioners and others said they believe the state economic development board and Gov. Jim Justice have been swayed by interests that see the plant as a threat to the coal industry.

Representatives of the economic development board and the governor’s office couldn’t be reached for comment.

Wise said she doesn’t see the plant as competition for the coal industry but said it would diversify the state’s energy resources.

“To not be able to use both of those (coal and natural gas) and play together as a team would be a big mistake,” she said, adding, “It just makes economic sense all the way around.”

State Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Wellsburg, noted Brooke County Power, an affiliate of the Energy Solutions Consortium, has entered into a 30-year agreement to make in lieu of tax payments of $433,000 per year to the county and $167,000 per year to the school district.

Weld noted it would mean an $18 million investment in the county.

He added Brooke County Power also has entered into a $4 million agreement with the Brooke County Public Service District to upgrade water and sewer systems to serve the plant.

Plans call for it to be built near Tent Church Road and Quinn Lane on property once included in the Cross Creek Wildlife Management Area.

Thomas said the Brooke County PSD hopes to use the funds to extend service to many more customers in that area.

Weld said the Wellsburg sewer department has agreed to process the plant’s wastewater, a move that’s expected to generate about $433,000 for upgrades to its wastewater treatment facilities.

It’s not clear if the Follansbee water department or another entity will supply water for the plant.

Weld and others noted the plant also is expected to bring many jobs.

In a letter to Justice, he said, “Should this project move forward, the immense size of the plant would require the work of over 1,000 members of the local construction trades in order to complete its construction. Once the plant becomes fully operational, it will then employ between 20 and 130 full-time staff members.”

In his own letter to Justice, state Del. Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, said, “The ESC Brooke County Power project is a once in a generation opportunity to host a $1 billion investment. The construction of the plant alone will generate $100 million in payroll for West Virginia workers.”

Swartzmiller noted the plant is expected to consume $177 million per year in natural gas, making it the state’s largest user of the energy source.

The number of local workers employed by the plant had been a point of contention for representatives of the Ohio Valley Jobs Alliance, an organization with ties to the coal industry that had sought to block its development.

But Steve White, president of the West Virginia Building and Construction Trades Council, said the company’s application with the state Public Service Commission states it expects 75 percent of the plant’s builders will be local.

White told the commission, “This is a great project for this region. We can get the manpower. The problem is in Charleston.”

He added, “Some people pose this (blocking the plant) will save coal. It won’t save coal.”

White warned the lack of a loan guarantee will prevent the developers from proceeding with the plant.

Charlie Burd, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, said the plant’s completion will open the doors for other development in the state.

The commission also received comments of support from state Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Wheeling; Eran Molz, president of the Upper Ohio Valley Building and Construction Trades Council; Bengy Swanson, labor representative for Project B.E.S.T.; and Marvin Six, executive director of the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle.

Six also was on hand to introduce Jacob Keeney, the BDC’s new assistant director.

Keeney is a graduate of Duquesne University, where he earned a master’s degree in environmental science and land management and has completed advanced training in environmental remediation programs, which have become a specialty for the BDC.

(Scott can be contacted at wscott@heraldstaronline.com.)

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