Even with questions arising over whether a contract period has expired for construction of a waste-to-energy facility, Carroll's Board of County Commissioners should increase efforts to find a replacement partner or taxpayers could still end up on the hook for paying a $3 million penalty.

Opponents to the trash incinerator project that Carroll and Frederick counties partnered to construct are pointing to a clause in the contact that relates to construction commencement, and say that since the Jan. 21 deadline passed without construction beginning, the parties involved can terminate the contract with no penalty.

Proponents of the project, as would be expected, have a different view of the wording, and disparities over interpretation of the contract likely would be fought out in court if Frederick decided to go that route.

Carroll commissioners decided to reverse the decision of the previous board and has told Frederick County to look for a different partner. Commissioner Haven Shoemaker told the Times last week that Carroll is "actively trying to find another party to take our position in the agreement." Under the original contract, pulling out meant Carroll is potentially liable for a penalty of $3 million if a new partner isn't found.

Frederick County Commissioner Blaine Young told the Times last week that nothing has changed from Frederick's position, but that his county's participation in the project is still contingent on a cost-benefit analysis. "If the numbers don't work, Frederick County's not moving forward on the project at all," Young told the Times.

Opponents to the project say it is unwise to get locked in to a long-term contract for 30 years. Shoemaker noted that technology is always evolving, and there may be more efficient and less costly ways to get rid of trash in the future.

If Frederick decides through a cost-benefit analysis that the project is no longer viable, or if that county gets embroiled in legal wranglings with the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority or Wheelabrator Technologies Inc., the company contracted to build the incinerator, the costs could mount quickly.

It is in Carroll's best interest to do everything in its power to find an alternate partner for the project now, but that is going to be increasingly difficult if questions regarding the contract remain. Possible partners likely will hold back any real commitment until these issues are settled, until the state-required permits are issued and the project is actually moving forward.

As it stands, while our board of commissioners set aside $3 million in case it had to pay the penalty for getting out of the contract, with no alternate partner in the wings, we could potentially be on the hook for much more if Frederick decides to cancel the project, or if lawsuits are filed contesting whether the contract is null and void.