BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — John Keenan and Lori Ehrlich are close in one sense: They are colleagues at the Statehouse and state representatives from neighboring communities. But they couldn’t be farther apart on the biggest issue facing Salem right now — the construction of an $800 million natural gas power plant on the waterfront.
Keenan is a strong supporter of the proposal, Ehrlich a staunch opponent.
For the past few weeks, Keenan has been locked in a battle with the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy group that has appealed state approvals won by Footprint Power, the New Jersey developers who want to build the 630-megawatt Salem plant as the first phase of its redevelopment of the 65-acre site.
In a bold move, Keenan, chairman of the House energy committee, attached language to a bill aimed at blocking CLF or anyone else from further appeals of the Salem project. Keenan argued that CLF and other opponents have had their say before state and local boards over the past year or more and are filing “frivolous” appeals only to delay or kill a much-needed project.
That controversial bill was filed with a House committee and has not come before the full House for a vote.
Keenan has been outspoken on the power plant issue, defending his stand in news stories and stating his case yesterday in a lengthy commentary on the editorial page of The Salem News. In that piece, he even took on Ehrlich.
Yesterday, Ehrlich did not shy away from the controversy, repeating an earlier claim that she sees Keenan’s move as a “blatant special favor” for Footprint.
It’s worth noting that the gas leaks prevention bill to which Keenan attached his no-appeals language was originally sponsored by Ehrlich. She even appeared a few weeks ago before Keenan’s committee to speak on the bill.
“To tag on language to an unrelated piece of legislation to benefit one out-of-state developer that has never (built) a power plant before is just not appropriate,” she said.
“On top of that, to cut off the legal permitting process raises Constitutional issues and threatens to sink a bill that is desperately needed. ...The (appeal) process is there to protect the public and involve the public. If somebody uses that process, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a privilege — it’s their legal right.”
Ehrlich strongly disagrees with Keenan on the key issue: the need for the plant. That is not surprising since she is a longtime environmental activist and former president of HealthLink, a Swampscott-based environmental group that is part of one of CLF’s appeals.
Keenan says the power will be needed in 2016, when the gas plant is scheduled to come on line, and points out that ISO New England, operators of the regional grid, has given the project a green light and repeatedly stressed that power from the plant will be needed in two years. Without it, Keenan warns, the region could face “rolling brownouts.”
While saying there will be a need for power, Ehrlich says the projected energy “gap” in this area is less than 200 megawatts, “which can be met through transmission upgrades and energy efficiencies...
“They don’t need a 700-megawatt power plant,” she said. “That plant was down for seven months (several years ago) and at one point will be down for two years, and the lights will stay on.”
Salem Harbor Station, which burns coal and oil, shut down for several months following a fatal accident in 2007. It is scheduled to close in May, and Footprint’s proposed natural-gas plant is not scheduled to open until June 2016.
“It’s really not personal,” Ehrlich said of her disagreement with Keenan. “Our communities have very different interests...
“For over 60 years, residents of this area have had to live with the public health consequences of living downwind from a coal-burning power plant. For those 60 years, no tax revenue, only pollution, flowed to surrounding communities...”
Ehrlich doesn’t buy the argument by Footprint supporters like Keenan that the new gas plant will be much cleaner than other gas plants in the region and will reduce overall pollution by replacing the power provided by those “dirtier” facilities. Nor is she swayed by the argument that this will be a so-called “bridge” plant until a time when wind, solar and other renewable sources can provide a greater share of the region’s energy needs.
She simply does not see the need for a new fossil-fuel plant on the Salem waterfront — right across from Marblehead.
“As a state representative and a resident of a downwind community, I cannot see any reason to support the plant,” she said.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.