Outsource outrage: Has Tenaska done local workers wrong?

Fluvanna County's new Tenaska power plant is at least a year away from generating energy, but it's already generated its share of controversy.

Many Fluvanna citizens were charged up about the project's existence from the get-go, but now that it's a fait accompli, there's a new complaint: Tenaska isn't using a local workforce for construction.

Leading the embittered shockwave is the Richmond Building and Construction Trades Council, which has put angry ads on WINA and has created a website, putvirginiansfirst.org, dedicated solely to the Tenaska employment issue.

One page of the website is splashed with pictures of out-of-state license plates photographed in the Tenaska parking lot, alleged proof of the hiring practices; the site further claims that the project has created 600 construction jobs $70 million in wages over two years that should have gone to local workers.

Richmond Building and Construction Trades Council business manager Jim Underwood says there are two main issues: Out-of-state workers are being used far more frequently than local workers, and there is no opportunity for on-the-job training for young contractors.

And the Virginia Organizing Project the nonprofit which is best known for its Living Wage campaign against local hotels is in on the complaint, as well.

"We're just encouraging letters to the editor and letters to local officials," says Joe Szakos, director of the VOP. "We're getting potential workers in touch with the campaign."

But Tenaska spokesperson Jana Martin says she thinks the campaign is the result of a misunderstanding.

"I don't think they have a good sense of what's happening locally," she says.

The project's general contractor, Omaha, Nebraska-based Gilbert Southern Corp., has held a local job fair and is "still recruiting," Martin says. "There are 151 Virginia vendors," she adds, "and the plant is expected to buy $50 million in goods and services from Virginia contractors."

But the Trades Council's Underwood says his organization never saw any ads for the job fair, despite monitoring local publications for such announcements. And Council rep Benny Sowers says he isn't convinced by the Tenaska reports of Virginia vendors. "We'd like to know who they are," he says, adding that his organization asked for that information and was denied.

"I think you'll find it's the people who clean the porta-johns," he says, rather than the high-paid trade contractors such as electricians.

Sowers' response to Martin's claim that the plant is still hiring is quick: "We're putting applications in left and right," he says, "and we're not getting hired."

But even Sowers admits the plant isn't all bad. "We don't dispute the positive effect it has on the community," he says, "but it would have a much better effect if they hired local Virginia people."

Norma Hutner, who sits on the Fluvanna Board of Supervisors, says she's heard the allegations of out-of-state hiring, but doesn't think that's the biggest problem the Tenaska project has brought to her county.

"Their trucks are tearing up our roads," she says, "and have disturbed residents in the middle of the night."

Though she acknowledges that Tenaska has been receptive to criticism concerning the trucks and has made adjustments, "It's always after it's already become a problem," she says.

The potholes and torn-up asphalt from heavy trucking were likely exacerbated by the brutal winter storms, so much so that Hutner says in some cases the road damage could actually break an axle.

Tenaska's Martin says her company is working closely with VDOT, and will pay for interim road repairs in the next two weeks. At the completion of the project, she explains, Tenaska will pay to return the road to its preconstruction condition.

And whatever the complaints about hiring or road damage many Fluvanna residents say the tax income that the plant will generate makes all the trouble worthwhile.

With an estimated value of between $250 million and $325 million, Tenaska will pay as much as $35 million in property taxes over the first 25 years of operation.

That could fill a lot of potholes.