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City Council Fights Biomass Project With Pro Bono Lawyer


The city council in Springfield is pressing ahead with a court fight against a proposed wood-burning power plant.  But first the council had to secure the services of a lawyer who would take the case for free.

The city council voted to accept free legal representation to appeal a court ruling that upheld the issuance of a building permit for the biomass plant proposed by Palmer Renewable Energy.  City Council President Mike Fenton said Springfield attorney Patrick Markey will serve as pro bono legal counsel to appeal a ruling by the Massachusetts Land Court in August that cleared the way for the controversial project.

" The city council has demonstrated the resolve to continue this appeal in order to stand up for the public health rights of the people of the city of Springfield," said Fenton.

Fenton said he is thrilled to have Markey take the case.

" He is a very qualified litigator. He is the former City Solicitor under Mayor Charles V. Ryan," explained Fenton.

Markey also served one term on the city council. He was one of only two councilors to vote in 2008 against a special permit for the biomass plant.

It was unusual for the council to need free legal representation. The city law department would normally represent the council, but has a conflict of interest because it represents the city building inspector, who is a defendant in the case.  Mayor Domenic Sarno refused to authorize funds for a special attorney.

Sarno, through a spokesman, said he opposed spending more taxpayer money on the case because appeals of the Land Court ruling were already being pursued by an environmental activist and a  couple who live near the proposed plant on Springfield’s east side.

City councilor Tim Rooke cast the only vote last month against filing the notice to appeal the Land Court ruling.  Rooke said the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection issued a permit for the plant after determining the emissions would fall below the permissible limits for certain pollutants.

"There is no threat to the safety of the residents of the city of Springfield," said Rooke.

Activists and concerned neighbors have fought the project for more than six years.  Claire Miller, Massachusetts state director for the Toxics Action Center, said it has the attention of  environmentalists across the region.

Activists fought biomass power plants proposed in Russell and Greenfield. Both those projects are dormant.  The Patrick Administration once promoted biomass as an alternative energy source along with solar and wind, but no longer does.

The administration  toughened requirements for biomass projects to qualify for state tax credits after a study found the carbon footprint of biomass on a par with coal.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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