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CREDIT the Lackawanna City Council -- or, more precisely, its slender 3-2 majority -- with political courage as well as common sense in putting itself on record in favor of the proposed $100 million plant designed to convert trashed tires into valuable energy.

Political courage, because the proposal has divided the community, raising fears and political threats. After the vote, one citizen activist warned: "You've just declared open season on yourselves for the next election."

In such a climate, it's always easy to duck responsibility, play it safe and do nothing. But a copout can cause a community to miss promising opportunities.

The majority approval was not open-ended. It was a measured step taken after months of indecision. It was contingent on approval by state environmental regulators, plus three other issues the Council wants satisfied by Oxford Energy Co.

The plant would go on the old Bethlehem Steel plant site, a location unlikely to become a Garden of Eden. Nothing can move forward, however -- or should -- without an okay from the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Its review of highly technical factors provides Lackawanna and its residents with crucial safeguards. Moreover, the DEC will monitor the plant's operation once it's under way.

But if the project has risks, it also has potential advantages.

It represents a significant capital outlay in an area notably lacking in such private investments since Bethlehem shut down several years ago. It would create a few jobs. It would pay helpful local, county and school taxes. By destroying mountains of old worn tires, it would improve the regional environment.

Utilizing a process developed in West Germany in the 1970s, the tires would be burned with intense heat. Residue would be converted into salable items. An Oxford plant on the West Coast, the firm says, meets all California environmental standards, which are stringent.

In general, the Council's conditions would require Oxford to come up with additional payments or economic concessions: Let all Lackawanna residents dispose of their old tires without charge; train fire fighters and contribute $250,000 over eight years to stabilize manning levels in the city fire department; help the city lower its $600,000 annual electric bills.

DEC disapproval would still kill this project. Approval would allow the Council to proceed to other considerations. We see nothing wrong with thinking about the possibilities and discussing them.

The Council vote fosters that. Defeat of the motion would have said: Don't bother us with details; we don't even want to explore any conditions that might make a plant possible.

The Council majority reached a smart decision that eventually could benefit the hard-pressed city and its residents.

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