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The Boston Globe

Metro

Yvonne Abraham

Officials playing dirty on Salem plant

The Salem Harbor Power Station, as seen in December 2011.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press/File

The Salem Harbor Power Station, as seen in December 2011.

SALEM — Nobody is going to miss the coal soot and carbon dioxide the soon-to-close Salem Harbor power plant belched into the air for 62 years.

But the jobs and millions in property taxes that came with those rust-stained stacks on the waterfront — those are things people in the City of Witches don’t want to give up.

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And they won’t, if Salem state Representative John Keenan, Mayor Kim Driscoll, and others get their way. The solution, they believe, is a new plant, fueled by gas, to be built by a New Jersey outfit called Footprint on part of the cleaned-up site.

It’s not an outlandish notion — though it would have been, should have been, if we’d been smarter about energy before now.

Sure, gas is cleaner than coal. Almost anything is. But it is still a fossil fuel, and in Massachusetts we’ve enacted very strict laws about carbon emissions. A gas plant just won’t cut it without some serious conditions attached, environmentalists say.

Put me down as one of those who find it utterly depressing that Salem is signing up for decades more of dirty power, that the city has decided it hasn’t time or money to dream up a more creative way to develop the land, that we haven’t moved faster on renewable energy.

And put me down as appalled that one man seems willing to do almost anything to make this gas plant happen.

Footprint has won the state permits it needs to build the plant, and the Conservation Law Foundation challenged it in the state’s highest court, arguing that the plant will not comply with new emission rules.

It’s a fair and predictable dispute. Reasonable and honorable people can disagree on these things, and do, even as the planet fries. Let the legal beagles bark it out.

But that’s not good enough for Keenan, who is trying an unseemly end run around the whole knotty issue. A few weeks ago, Keenan, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Energy Committee, inserted an amendment into a very popular bill to control gas leaks that would shut down the legal challenges to Footprint. Essentially, the amendment decrees that Footprint officials have answered all the questions they need to.

It’s a blatant mockery of due process. And given that this is the first generating plant proposed since groundbreaking state climate change rules were unanimously approved in 2008, it sets one very lousy precedent.

“I don’t appreciate that the vetting process is being curtailed,” says state Representative Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead resident and environmental activist. “It’s there for the protection and involvement of the public.”

Keenan rejects these criticisms. He’s acting out of love for “Salem and my constituents,” he says. “Nobody should be surprised about how hard I’ve fought for this plant. It’s one of the primary reasons I ran for office.”

He accuses the CLF of trying to delay the Footprint project until it misses key deadlines and its financing falls through. And he says he cares about the environment, that he worries about the world his kids will inherit. He even has solar panels on his roof. (For years, however, he’s refused to let the Bottle Bill out of his committee, so his ardor has limits.)

Keenan would have more credibility if he hadn’t tried to give Footprint a sweetheart deal before. Last year, he slipped language into another popular environment bill which would have allowed Footprint to enter into a lucrative 15-year agreement guaranteeing the company a buyer for its power — shielding it from market forces. Other power suppliers freaked out, and the giveaway was scuttled.

Footprint’s attorneys are pushing hard for a swift court decision because speed, they believe, is essential for the project to stay viable financially. Fair enough. The company has a clear stake, and it is playing by the rules.

Keenan should do so, too, before the grime from his maneuvering soils his reputation — and the skies over Salem.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com
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