The Mysterious Mister Tien

The man who sold Cleveland on visions of prosperity isn't all he claims to be

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"I don't understand how intelligent people could get caught up in this," says Neil Seldman, a recycling and job creation expert, and founder of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis. The institute helps cities of all sizes plan mass recycling, composting, and zero-landfill waste solutions that attract businesses to communities and create jobs.

"On the surface, this deal is a phony. The economics haven't been calculated. It's coming from the developer, not a businessman; the technology hasn't been done here before," he says. "All this is silliness."

Seldman estimates that it will cost the city about $110 per ton to gasify trash — not the $26 cited by Tien. In addition, he says that while Princeton claims 90 to 120 workers will be needed to operate the plant, such a plant would likely create no more than 50 jobs.

In May, Ohio Citizen Action, Environmental Health Watch, the Earth Day Coalition, and the Northeast Ohio Sierra Club brought Seldman to Cleveland to meet with West Siders and city officials. He offered alternative solutions to gasification that he says would have Cleveland profiting more from its trash.

"The city already has a good contract for [earning] $69 a ton for its recyclables," Seldman says. But that's for what's known as a "mixed stream," where paper, plastic, aluminum, and glass are collected together. Collecting separated recyclables instead makes them more valuable. Paper uncontaminated with other materials, for example, can bring more than $200 a ton, according to Seldman.

"The only reason we went with gasification was that we didn't know these other alternatives were available," Cleveland "sustainability czar" Andy Watterson said during the meeting with Seldman. (Watterson left the post October 31 to join BrownFlynn, a company specializing in sustainability practices.)

"I offered to come back to Cleveland free of charge to discuss it," Seldman says. "I never heard from them."

One problem is that Cleveland's recycling efforts started six years ago as a mixed-stream curbside program for one-tenth of its residents. Since then, it has doubled in size, says councilman Cummins. "The city already put itself on a mixed-waste recycling stream, which doesn't mesh well with what Neil says — that single stream has more upsell."

"Why can't they go back and start a single-stream recycling program?" Citizen Action's Buchanan counters. Her group and others meet twice a month to plan their strategy for fighting the Ridge Road plant.

Tien claims that Kinsei's secret technology would reduce cancer-causing dioxin formation, mercury, and emissions to the lowest levels ever seen. "We are the only gasifier that qualifies with the EPA as a 'minor' pollution source," he says. "All the other companies would be 'major' polluters."

That is a key issue in Cuyahoga County, which the EPA says can have no additional major polluters because the dirt in our air already exceeds the agency's allowable limit.

But local environmental groups are suspicious of Tien's clean-air claims and haven't been able to evaluate them; key numbers on the EPA permit application he submitted were redacted. The EPA allowed the redactions when Kinsei argued that making those numbers public would give away the company's trade secrets.

Inquiries from Scene and the Natural Resources Defense Council led the EPA to contact Kinsei, and an unredacted EPA permit application was released in mid-November.

Among the redacted items: the amount of gas the plant would produce and the amount of steam for electricity it would generate — both key to evaluating whether the gasifier would produce enough electricity to justify its cost.

As for the environmental fallout? All of the latest gasifiers tend to be fairly clean and efficient, according to experts with the National Renewable Energy Laboratories in Colorado. Gasification engineer Richard Bain cannot say whether Kinsei's unit is any cleaner than those of other makers, because no comparative studies have been done. In general, he says, modern gasifiers are 65 to 80 percent efficient, compared to 35 percent efficiency for most coal-fired electricity.

"But the challenge you have is while we can show on paper it is more efficient, they are going to be more expensive," Bain says. In other words: The electricity gasification produces will cost more than what Cleveland currently pays to buy it — about three times more. The current plan is for the gasifier to generate about 7 percent of Cleveland's overall power needs.

But it doesn't appear the city is interested in less expensive alternatives.

In September, Cleveland Public Power asked 120 gasifier manufacturers, recycling companies, consultants, and project developers for information about their products and services — information similar to what Tien is being paid $1.5 million to provide.

"[It] is intended to get industry input on what they recommend we do next with the project," Commissioner Henderson says. "We will hire a consultant to evaluate all the responses. It is our intent to move pretty quickly going forward."

Twenty companies responded, and several claim they can meet or exceed the clean-air standards Tien says only Kinsei is capable of producing.

If the EPA approves the Kinsei permit but the city chooses another company, Tien will be $1.5 million richer and Cleveland will start all over again.

And if Cleveland remains set on using Kinsei, it has more promises from Peter Tien to look forward to.

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