File photo: A pile of biomass fuel awaits conversion into electricity at the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center. (Courtesy of Bill Gaston/Wood Resource Recovery)

Judge Hears Closing Arguments In Biomass Civil Trial; $17 Million At Stake

While court was in lunch recess on Thursday, Patrice Boyes, an attorney for Wood Resource Recovery, walked around an Alachua County courtroom holding an evidence exhibit.

A roll of plastic bags. As a joke, she offered it to Robert Vezina.

Vezina, an attorney for Gainesville Renewable Energy Center, kindly declined.

“I hope I never see it again,” he told her.

Circuit Judge Monica Brasington overrules an objection from GREC attorney Rob Vezina during the 8-day trial over a lawsuit filed against the Gainesville biomass plant's operators. (Ethan Magoc/WUFT News)
Circuit Judge Monica Brasington overrules an objection from GREC attorney Robert Vezina during the 8-day trial over a lawsuit filed against the Gainesville biomass plant’s operators. (Ethan Magoc/WUFT News)

That was an informal prologue to closing arguments in a non-jury civil trial that could cost GREC as much as $17 million in damages if Circuit Judge Monica Brasington decides in Wood Resource Recovery’s favor.

Plastic was central to the trial throughout its eight days. As the biomass plant prepared to come online in 2013, GREC told Wood Resource Recovery there were too many pieces of plastic in its wood deliveries. The companies’ contract allowed for as much as two pounds per ton (one-tenth of one percent) of plastic in each wood delivery — plastic that came from yard waste.

Wood Resource Recovery’s attorney Kent Safriet ended his arguments where he opened two weeks ago — on the contract.

“Contracts matter,” he said. He pointed to an exhibit showing different limits on plastics, other foreign material and ash among GREC’s multiple contracts — including a 30-year agreement with the city of Gainesville that could earn GREC’s operators as much as $3 billion.

The state air permit, which GREC obtained after signing an agreement with WRR, did not allow the plant to burn any pounds of plastic.

“The question was, what could GREC do to fix the problem?” Safriet said. “Which contract were they going to massage, amend, revise to fix the problem? They weren’t going to revise (the 30-year city agreement) because they were at odds with the city, and the city was trying to cancel it…

“So WRR was the low man on the totem pole. They were the variable, the only thing that could be changed.”

GREC’s attorneys argued throughout the trial that the dispute was not about contractual inconsistencies, but about the Gainesville wood supplier’s inability to deliver enough clean biomass to meet its obligations. After the lawsuit was filed a year ago, GREC entered a counterclaim for $2 million in damages from WRR.

The counterclaim arose from a plant shutdown in 2013 before Gainesville Regional Utilities started buying its fuel. Len Fagan, who oversees GREC’s engineering, described during the trial the event that inspired GREC’s counterclaim.

“The boiler just got totally plugged up. We were forced to shut down,” he said. “It required us to open the boiler up after a couple days when it cooled down. We had to bring a big vac truck and vacuum out a lot of sandy-type materials from the various sections of the boiler.”

The plant began selling electricity (generated by burning wood from WRR and others) to GRU in late 2013.

In his closing argument, GREC attorney Mike Piscitelli pushed back against Safriet’s contract points.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter why they terminated the contract. And we didn’t terminate. We didn’t want to terminate,” he said. “WRR merely chose to walk away and I would suggest respectfully, your honor, that you also let them walk away.”

Each side will submit its proposed judgment to Judge Brasington by June 6, and then she will determine who will receive what amount of money — if any.

Here’s what happened in other parts of this trial:

Below: Explore how much money GREC has charged GRU since the biomass plant began operating. Here’s where the data came from. “Other charges” include non-fuel costs like ad valorem taxes. These figures only represent billing amounts, not payments made; GRU disputed multiple months’ charges.

About Ethan Magoc

Ethan is a journalist at WUFT News. He's a Pennsylvania native who found a home reporting Florida's stories. Reach him by emailing or calling 352-294-1525.

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