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On The Money: Biomass Boondoggle

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Millions of taxpayer dollars were spent on an alternative energy plant in Butte County – but the so-called Gridley Project was never built. Critics in the town are calling it a biomass boondoggle, after the expenditure of $5.1 million in federal funds in the form of grants from the Department of Energy.

“We have nothing after 17 years to show for all of this – absolutely nothing,” said Gridley resident Dan Lofing.

At first, the Gridley Project called for converting rice straw into ethanol. But over time the plan changed, with the goal of taking rice straw – and turning the waste into diesel fuel.

Promoters promised there would be plenty of new jobs for the small town of Gridley.
But how many new jobs were actually created?

“Well outside of the person who managed this project, none,” stated Dave Garner, a critic of the project and current member of the Gridley City Council, who produced his own Power Point presentation.

The Gridley Project manager was Tom Sanford, a former city councilman.

Sanford collected nearly a million dollars to serve as energy commissioner and investigator for the Gridley Project, according to a Butte County Grand Jury report (see page 45).

“There’s no return,” said Bruce Johnson. The former city council member told CBS 13, “There’s not a project here and there wouldn’t be a return if you look at the numbers.”

But Tom Sanford defended the numbers – and his role in the project.

“That contract was subject to review by four councils and eight budget reviews,” Sanford stated. The former energy commissioner told CBS 13, “The biomass project was essentially at no cost to the local citizens.”

But there was a cost according to the grand jury: $5 million in federal funds and $679,000 in Gridley tax dollars to purchase the plot of land for a bio-fuels plant that was never built.

How much alternative energy did the Gridley Project actually produce?

“With the exception of some heat generated in the council chambers: zero, nothing,” noted Gridley City Councilman Dave Garner.

“But if the goal was to generate jobs and to create an alternative energy source for cheaper power – you fell short of that did you not?” this reporter asked Tom Sanford.

His response, “I think that progress has been made. Did we build one today, no.”

Sanford later presented a letter to Gridley Mayor Jerry Fichter, addressing what he believes are political overtones to the grand jury report.

The land in question is now scheduled to be used for a solar farm, under a new city contract – so Gridley may get something out of it. As for the $5 million in federal funds for the development of biofuels – well that has yielded virtually no return on investment thus far, creating outrage in Gridley.

“I think all of us as citizens and taxpayers have to stand up at some point and say this is wasteful,” said Gridley Project critic Dave Garner. The City Councilman told CBS 13, “I refuse to allow Gridley to become the next Bell, California.”

The Department of Energy terminated the Gridley Project last year. The Butte County Grand Jury blasted city officials for poor judgment, sloppy record keeping and violating the public’s trust, due to potential conflicts of interest surrounding the project. The Gridley City Council must now respond in writing to the Grand Jury report.

If you see examples of government waste, send us an e-mail to onthemoney@kovr.com. You can also follow On The Money stories in progress via Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/mikeluery and Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/CBS13OnTheMoney.

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