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Questions surround USDA, Biomass deal

Tribune editorial staff

In hindsight, the letter raises more questions than it answered. That fact is ironic since the intent of the letter was to answer questions about why Biomass Group LLC, a South Point company, was granted a contract to destroy more than 120,000 tons of surplus tobacco.

The letter's author was an official with the United States Department of Agriculture, the federal agency attempting to get rid of the surplus tobacco. The letter, dated Feb. 4, 2003, was sent in response to questions of a competing bidder for the contract, Montenay Power Corporation of Mainland, Penn.

Reading the letter and checking the facts, a few things become clear.

4USDA officials, despite being presented with facts to the contrary, contended that Biomass would be able to destroy the tobacco within 18 months. A timeframe that seems unbelievable given that the company owned no facility capable of burning the tobacco. Furthermore, any plans to retrofit such a facility would probably take longer than 18 months from the time the contract was awarded in December 2002 -- a fact Biomass' own CEO has publicly stated. In addition to Montenay's information, officials with the Lawrence Economic Development Corporation also expressed doubts about the viability. Apparently the USDA ignored that, too.

4Biomass was awarded the contract despite not having the state permits required to store or burn tobacco -- an inexcusable oversight.

4Biomass was delinquent on paying taxes at the time the USDA signed off on the contract, according to county tax officials. Yet, despite the delinquent taxes, the USDA signed a $2.3 million contract anyway -- a gross oversight. Again, the USDA should have checked on this as part of the normal routine of checking off on such a large contract. The Lawrence County Commissioners or the county auditor would have been happy to provide that information. All the USDA had to do is ask.

Yes, the letter raises a number of questions:

Why on earth did the USDA not do its homework? Did their reckless handling of the issue harm the environment, as portions of the tobacco actually sent to Biomass have been stored in the open? Who is monitoring the USDA and its contracts? And, who will answer for their carelessness?

We urge Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro to pursue this issue as he probes the state EPA's complaint against Biomass. Ohio deserves more than to allow the federal government to show such disregard for its soil and its people.