This past weekend the movie-going public had the opportunity to see (or not) the new movie “The Fifth Estate.” This new cinematic thriller provided movie viewers with a highly fictionalized snapshot of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Mr. Assange, just in case you recently emerged from hibernation, gained national notoriety when he leaked to the world damaging information considered “top secret” by the U. S. Government around their involvement in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan as well as provided information that potentially compromised the identity of “intelligence operatives” within those countries. While these leaks garnered significant international attention, and rightly so, I would like to ask a very important question to Mr. Assange: Where were you when we needed you on Dynamis?
For those of you unfamiliar with the Dynamis story (I am going to assume you just awoke from some sort of drug-induced coma) let me give you the shortened version.
In June of 2010 Ada County Commissioners sent out a press release touting a recently signed agreement between the county and Dynamis Energy, LLC to design, build and operate a state-of-the-art waste to energy plant that would convert household trash and tires into electricity. In this agreement the county agreed to lease landfill property to the company for $1 a year for 20 years. In exchange. Dynamis would build an energy plant capable of processing 250 tons of trash and other forms of solid waste into energy, every day. The conversion process was supposed to generate 20 megawatts of electricity or enough electricity to power to 14,000 homes. As a part of this initial agreement Ada County paid Dynamis $2 million upfront as seed money to help them design the plant. Dynamis anticipated the cost of building the new facility would be about $66 million.
So far so good, right?
From the very beginning this was a project fraught with problems. When Ada County signed its partnership agreement with Dynamis they did so because they were up against some looming deadlines that would have serious implications on funding. First and foremost to qualify for a federal grant to cover up to 30% of the cost of the plant it had to be built and functioning by December 31, 2013. Additionally, in order for Idaho Power to agree to pay for power produced, the plant had to supply power no later than Feb. 18, 2014. It was against these looming deadlines that the Ada County Commissioners signed their agreement – without public notice and without public input. Almost immediately the backlash began. It was pointed out that the Dynamis contract didn’t guarantee that its project would even work since it was based upon newly developed experimental technology and that if after the review Ada County chose not to proceed the $2 million payment was forfeit.
If this wasn’t bad enough, in November of 2011 the commissioners entered into a second agreement with Dynamis. This new agreement sweetened the pot by allowing Dynamis to finance the project, build it, own it and operate a plant costing $60m on county land for just $1 a year. The County was required to deliver a set amount of trash daily at no charge and it required Idaho Power to purchase this power at an inflated rate. Once again the push to get this done as quickly as possible centered on securing government support and lucrative tax incentives that were about to expire. At this point in time – not one public meeting was held – and very little public input had been sought.
As one can expect the public backlash was significant. Residents who lived near the Dynamis site began to actively organize a community-wide response. Ada County Commissioners facing up-coming elections began a public campaign defending the project and trying to defuse public sentiment against the Dynamis deal. Dynamis itself went on the defensive, trying to tout its technology but refusing to produce documents that supported its technology as effective. When a public meeting was finally held, Dynamis and the Ada County Commissioners were met with outright skepticism and anger. It didn’t bode well for the home team.
Elections came – the commissioner most associated with the Dynamis deal found herself unemployed – the new group revoked previous agreements – and the Dynamis project was no more. The county in order to put this issue behind them agreed to write off the $2m cash advance. Dynamis, in the spirit of cooperation, agreed to not pursue litigation seeking additional financial reimbursement. The project went out with a whimper.
The Dynamis project was a public planning fiasco for Ada County. The idea that one could move forward with a public works project without the need for careful and strategic planning; an understanding of the technology and its efficacy; and more important, public buy-in was a fiasco worthy of Julian Assange. So why didn’t it make it onto the front pages of Wikileaks? I guess he was to busy hiding from the operatives whose identity he reveals. You know, Idaho is a pretty good place to hide.