Thursday February 24, 2011

BRATTLEBORO -- To better understand Windham County’s economic future without Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, a committee of state senators traveled to Brattleboro on Wednesday afternoon to hear concerns from local business and municipal leaders.

Four members of the Vermont Senate Committee on Economic Development, General & Military Affairs organized the two-hour public forum at the Brattleboro Retreat after freshman Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, expressed a need for such a hearing in the county.

"The state has an obligation to assist us with the transition," said Galbraith, who campaigned in favor of closing the plant on schedule but also pushed for a community forum to review all future options regarding Yankee.

"We have something in common, in wishing to make sure this departure is not going to be damaging to our economy," he said. The purpose of the forum was not to reargue the issue of relicensing since the Vermont Senate already voted to block continued operations past March 2012, he added.

"We felt it was our responsibility to really start talking about how we’re going to transition the economy in this region to a post-Vermont Yankee era, and that’s why we’re here today," said Committee Chairman Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans.

Vermont Yankee, the 39-year-old nuclear plant located on 125 acres near the Connecticut River in Vernon, employs 642 workers. With a payroll of nearly $60 million, the plant is responsible for roughly 5 percent of the regional wages.


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"Our future is going to be jeopardized with the eventual closing of the plant, whenever it takes place. We have to provide for it now," said Art Greenbaum, CEO of GPI Construction. During his testimony, Greenbaum said 5 to 10 percent of annual work volume is done within Yankee’s property.

"I think the biggest thing you could do is continue this dialogue down here, take the message back to the Legislature. Make sure that the talk comes with action," he said, answering directly the committee’s question about what the state can do for Windham County.

Jeffrey Lewis, executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., said local business and municipal leaders became interested in this issue through the Southeast Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS), a review of the county’s income and employment data, as well as analysis of the region post-Yankee.

"When we look around and see what events are going to come at us in the future, one of the big ones is Vermont Yankee is vulnerable," he said.

While Yankee is the second largest private employer in the county, the SeVEDS indicates actual job losses are likely to occur within other support industries. The stagnant economy will make the absorption of those losses more difficult, resulting in higher unemployment in the county.

All studies conducted on the fiscal impact (including consultation from the anti-nuclear New England Coalition and the Vermont chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) agree the local economy will suffer.

"This is a very difficult topic to talk about. An industry that’s been a core to an area for 40 years, to talk about it not being here," Lewis added. "A local industry that served the area well, provided good jobs, very hard to talk about it leaving."

The Department of Public Service states Yankee supplies approximately one-third of Vermont’s electrical requirements under the power-purchase agreement, selling 55 percent of its power to Vermont’s two largest utilities.

"We recognize the important contribution of the Vermont Yankee station to individual municipalities, the Windham region as a whole, the state of Vermont and communities in the adjoining states of New Hampshire and Massachusetts," said Lawrence "Chris" Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission. "We are certain your committee understands that the economic impacts of the Vermont Yankee station are profound within our region."

The WRC, a Brattleboro-based nonprofit serving 27 towns in southern Vermont, has not taken a position regarding the future of Yankee and has established a reputation for neutrality on the issue. The commission did call for Yankee to respond to all decommissioning standards.

"It must be ensured that the decommissioning fund and other guarantees are adequate to accomplish the prompt and complete decommissioning of the plant upon shutdown," Campany said. "It remains the WRC’s contention that prompt decommissioning would better support an orderly transition and the orderly development of the region ..."

Robert Bady, a Brattleboro resident who has participated in multiple campaigns to close Yankee, told the senators the Legislature needs to get more involved in the decommissioning process. "There’s a lot of devils in that detail," he said.

Bady spoke during the public comment period. He was one of only a handful of speakers who opposed the continued operation of Yankee.

Advocates for the nuclear facility also noted the plant’s owner, Entergy Corp., has been a major supporter of regional charities. Leaders of some of the county’s largest nonprofits testified Yankee and its employees contribute a significant portion of their annual revenue.

"We have a long history of support from Vermont Yankee, from before Entergy bought them. As part of our long-range planning, our board is already beginning to discuss the eventual loss of significant funding that they give to our programs," said Melinda Bussino of the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center. "And we know this is a concern shared by other nonprofits in the region who have similar funding challenges."

Seven percent of the Drop In Center’s funding comes from Vermont Yankee. The plant has provided an estimated $206,330 in cash donations in the past decade, with more than $33,000 in 2010 alone.

The United Way of Windham County’s annual revenue from Entergy to its fund is $80,000.

"This isn’t about a company, it’s about a people," said Patricia O’Donnell, former Republican House representative from Vernon. "Anytime anything is happening in Vernon, Vermont Yankee people step up to the plate."

To further review the potential economic shortfalls, the Senate committee looked at how other New England towns fared following the closure of their nuclear sites -- Yankee Nuclear Power Station in Rowe, Mass., and Maine Yankee atomic power plant in Wiscasset, Maine.

The Rowe-based facility shut down in Sept. 1991, the Maine plant closed in December 1996.

"Question I often get is -- is there a stigma to sites after the company leaves? The answer is absolutely yes," said John Mullin, a University of Massachusetts professor and director of the Center for Economic Development in the Bay State. He analyzed the aftereffects of the Rowe plant’s closure in Franklin County.

Much like the Rowe facility, Mullin said the high-paying professional jobs at Vermont Yankee are difficult to replace because those workers are very skilled and in demand at other facilities.

"Based on the experience that we have seen elsewhere, they have left. Those that have stayed tend to be those who are committed to the region in terms of ‘love of place,’" he said. Employees who do stay are not likely to find work with the same level of salary and benefits as they would at a nuclear plant.

The small Maine town of Wiscasset has seen little job growth but a stabilized housing market, as many of the once-vacated properties were purchased as second homes.

"What we found was that effects were highly localized. The host community had to make up or make do without power plant tax revenue, which was somewhat alleviated by negotiating incremental decreases over time," said Raymond Shadis, a consultant for New England Coalition and resident of Edgecomb, Maine. "Last year the host town took in around $700,000 in taxes on the remaining nuclear waste site."

Town officials in Vernon have already started exploring options to receive some type of taxable revenue from the site once the plant closes, regardless if it happens in 13 months or 20 years. Yankee pays more than 50 percent of Vernon’s property taxes (an estimated $1.24 million), and once the plant closes, the town will have to seek alternative sources of revenue or face skyrocketing rates.

Selectboard Chairman Michael Courtemanche said closing Yankee will have a devastating effect on Vernon.

"I must say that every year, VY donates $7,000 to the town just for our town picnic. It’s one of the things that makes living in a small Vermont town special," he said. "Additionally, they have given us $25,000 for an addition to our fire department, $50,000 for a senior housing project on Huckle Hill, they donated a house to the town to turn it into our emergency management headquarters."

O’Donnell expects a trickle-down effect when the plant closes. Employees living in town will move out, causing a massive flood of open houses on the market. With families moving out, the per-pupil-cost at the elementary school will increase.

In December 2010, the Vernon Selectboard voted to organize a tax stabilization committee to meet with Entergy representatives to possibly negotiate a contract to ensure the municipality will take in some value after Yankee shuts down.

One option the Selectboard is reviewing -- taxing the dry-cask storage of spent fuel that may remain on the property for as long as a century. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said the fuel could remain at the present location for 100 to 200 years.

Former sites at Rowe and Wiscasset negotiated long-term storage taxation deals.

According to Mullin, the county will not recover quickly from the loss of Yankee, but the company needs to play a major role in the process. He also criticized the state for not having the economic development fail-safes that others have in place to assist in funding.

To further assist in the future planning without Yankee, a citizens committee is in the works to facilitate regional participation in decisions related to the eventual closure. The group would coordinate the efforts of working groups focused on economic development, site supervision and the fiscal, social and cultural demands on such issues like real estate values or tax receipts.

Campany said the WRC supports the formation of the citizens’ committee and expects play a role in its establishment and execution. "While the eventual closure of the Vermont Yankee station will have impacts throughout the state and beyond, it is our contention that the focus of the planning efforts must be centered here in the Windham region," he said.

Chris Garofolo can be reached at cgarofolo@reformer.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.