Vermont Yankee is seen here from the Hinsdale, N.H., side of the Conneticut river.Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer
Vermont Yankee is seen here from the Hinsdale, N.H., side of the Conneticut river. Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer
Saturday February 18, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- A four-state watershed advocate group is reporting the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant has not justified its basis for continuing the current thermal variance in the Connecticut River and calls for the facility owners to prove there is no risk to aquatic species.

The Connecticut River Watershed Council released its reports Friday contending Entergy Corp., owner and operator of Yankee, has not justified to Vermont's Agency of Natural Resources why it should continue bypassing its cooling towers and dumping hot water directly into the river.

CRWC Executive Director Andrew Fisk said Entergy has a pending application with ANR and has asked for an additional five years with the current water temperature limits.

"The law is really clear that every time you ask again, you have to prove your case," Fisk said. "So what we did was look at all the studies that they have put on the table at ANR, they went in a long time ago in 2006 and said, ‘Here's everything that justifies five more years of thermal pollution.' So we weren't convinced that told the story they said it did because when you look at the law, it's clear that the applicant has to demonstrate no harm."

When consultants reviewed the application, Fisk said Entergy did not prove its case one way or the other.

"We're saying you can't issue a permit for a thermal variance because Entergy hasn't proved that there isn't an impact," he added.


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Entergy officials responded by saying the company has not completed its review of the new information at this time. Supporters of the nuclear facility raised questions about the vagueness of the council documents.

According to the CRWC reports, Entergy's technical studies failed to meet several key requirements. The council asserts Entergy omitted critical analyses of time-varying, dynamic river conditions, ignored potential thermal impacts of Vernon Dam (and its fishway) and used only a limited number of fish species that do not fully reflect the river's ecology.

Entergy also assumed that its thermal pollution affected only a half mile of river despite its own data showing the plume extended 55 miles to Holyoke, Mass., according to the CRWC.

Council members argue the lack of valid justification for the thermal pollution means Vermont's Agency of Natural Resources should issue a new permit with no special thermal allowances. ANR has already received the reports and the agency prepares to issue a new water quality permit for the plant.

Fisk says the plant has no new information for the state to judge in order to ensure they have met the legal standards.

"Entergy has to prove there is not an impact, as opposed to the state proving that there is. The burden is all on Entergy," he said.

"After reviewing all the technical reports, we and our consultants filed a formal request to obtain the computer files of Entergy's hydrothermal model to determine if its results could be validated independently, which is standard EPA practice. But there was no response to this request, nor to our knowledge was the actual model ever previously released to Vermont's Agency of Natural Resources or any other entity for a thorough peer review," Fisk said.

Laura Murphy of Vermont Law School, whose Environmental & Natural Resources Law Clinic is representing CRWC, said the council reports show Entergy has not displayed evidence its discharge does not harm the river's native fish and wildlife. She argues the company needs to start the process again and use valid modeling and accurately consider the sensitive fish species in the river.

"Until that time, Entergy should use its existing cooling towers to stop the discharges of excess heat," Murphy said.

The CRWC said thermal pollution can harm river life by heating up the river and negatively affecting wildlife and their habitats. The pollution could disrupt or confuse fish, which look for changes in water temperatures to migrate or breed.

About 15 years ago, Fisk said Yankee received permission to raise the river temperature up 13 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and five degrees in summer and fall months. By 2006, Entergy "convinced" the state to increase the temperature again. 

"None of it is scientifically justified," Fisk said.

"Vermont Yankee has been allowed to do all this under an expired water quality permit. Last year we petitioned ANR to begin the permit renewal process, which has been stalled since 2006," Fisk continued. "Now that the court has ruled that Vermont Yankee won't be shut down this March, it's time for the state to issue a new permit that requires Yankee to use its cooling towers and stop using the Connecticut River as its dump."

Entergy spokesman Rob Williams told the Reformer on Friday afternoon they have not completed the CRWC review.

"It is worth noting, however, that over the course of six years from 2004 to 2009, CRWC had an opportunity to establish its case before the Vermont ANR, the independent reviewer hired by the Vermont ANR, the Vermont ANR's Environmental Advisory Committee, the EPA, the Vermont Environmental Court, and the Vermont Supreme Court," Williams said.

"Each of these independent reviewers rejected CRWC's position because it was not grounded in credible science. And each of these independent reviewers confirmed that Vermont Yankee's thermal discharge is safe for the Connecticut River, particularly its fish populations, including Atlantic salmon and American shad."

Rep. Michael Hebert, a Vernon Republican, said CRWC gave a broad-stroke overall with "nothing specific at all."

"I think there were trying to give this impression of all this hot water being dumped in the river, but we have to have some perspective," Hebert said.

"I was asking to put it in perspective -- they can discharge water 13 degrees hotter in the wintertime, but what [Fisk] neglected to tell people was they draw that water in at river temperature, which at this time of the year is in between 30-35 degrees. So when they put it back into the river, it's 43 degrees maybe, which is cold water," he continued. Dozens of families swim and fish near the Vernon dam just downstream of the plant in the summer, so there is no issue with raising the temperature 5 degrees either, he added.

Other lawmakers, like Brattleboro Progressive/Democrat Sarah Edwards, said the burden of proof is on Entergy to show they are not harming the river.

"It is about raising the temperature of the river. They have a variance for a 1-degree increase above what is allowed, but if that number is based on bad science, they should be required to use the cooling towers with the lower temperature until they do permit ... many people on the street think this is more of the same from Entergy, like the underground pipes and the cooling towers," Edwards said.

Guy Page, communications director with the pro-Yankee Vermont Energy Partnership, attended the conference. He said growing up in the Burlington area, he remembers coal plants on the waterfront and the pollution that came along with fossil fuels.

"Taking Vermont Yankee offline creates a gap in the New England grid energy demand, which at this point is going to be replaced with mostly natural gas and coal, which has a negative effect on water quality," he said. "They end up in our state waters. To me, one of the benefits of Yankee is that it does not emit, there's no issue of acid rain and other potential water pollutants."

Associate General Counsel Catherine Gjessing with the Department of Environmental Conservation did not immediately return phone calls for comment.

ConnectVT meets
with county reps.

-- Karen Marshall, Chief of ConnectVT, met this week with representatives from Windham County, saying this is a critical time in the planning and implementation phases of the overall project to expand broadband access in Vermont.

The website www.BroadbandVT.org provides Vermonters the opportunity to report where broadband Internet is available. Current maps of where the service is available within the Green Mountain State are riddled with inaccuracies and this site allows homeowners to check their property and report incorrect information.

It also serves as a one-stop information resource for Vermonters curious about broadband access in the state.

Putney Democrat Mike Mrowicki said one of the most important points is mapping the holes in service.

"If they don't hear from people, they will assume there isn't a problem," he said. Mrowicki recommended calling local legislators at the Statehouse (800-322-5616) or visiting the website and reporting an unserved address.

"It is imperative to report an unserved address ASAP as the next step is acquiring access points for wireless booster towers for the 4G network," he added.

Animal advocates
to lobby next week

-- Animal rights groups and advocates will gather at the Statehouse next Wednesday for the annual Humane Lobby Day.

The yearly event is co-sponsored by The Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Vermont Humane Federation. It allows animal advocates time to meet with lawmakers about legislation to assist animals.

Some of the animal-related bills in the General Assembly this session include a proposal to crack down on puppy mill abuses, a measure requiring dangerous medical procedures be performed only by veterinarians and a Senate bill to prohibit the use of cruel gestation crates for pregnant pigs.

In a special ceremony, State Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, will present the Vermont Humane Federation's "Humane Hero" award to 15-year-old Sallie Wilson, a student at Enosburg Falls High School. Wilson alerted police to a possible puppy mill, leading to a raid in Bakersfield last July and the rescue of 58 Labradors from the property.

The Humane Lobby Day begins at 9 a.m. on Feb. 22 in the Pavilion Auditorium, then guests will move to the Statehouse for a news conference and meetings with their lawmakers.

Chris Garofolo is the political reporter for the Reformer. He can be reached at cgarofolo@reformer.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.