Saturday March 17, 2012

VERNON -- As the anticipated protests against the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant next week draw closer, Vernon residents attended a public forum Thursday evening to address their concerns.

And according to the Selectboard and the town police department, the motto has remained "Prepare for the worst, hope for the best."

Opponents of the continued operation of the 40-year-old Yankee, which was scheduled to shut down on March 21 but received a new license last year, have planned multiple events in the Brattleboro and Vernon area, causing much unease among property owners near the plant located just off Governor Hunt Road.

"Don’t take the law into your own hands. At the end of the day, the worst thing would be if someone from Vernon was arrested for breaking the law," said Selectboard Chairwoman Patricia O’Donnell, who helped organize the Thursday forum with representatives from the fire, police and parks & recreation departments, school administrators and emergency management services.

The goal was to outline the steps Vernon officials are taking to keep the disruption of daily life in town as minimal as possible.

Like several other officials in Vernon, O’Donnell said the meeting was prompted because of the number of phone calls she received about the influx of protesters coming to town.

The Selectboard is accommodating the right of people to protest while attempting to reduce the inconvenience to locals.

But the No. 1 priority, said O’Donnell, is to keep everyone, town residents, emergency personnel and the protesters, safe during any action in the next week.

Annette Roydon, Vernon’s emergency management director, agreed. She said in her meetings with the Vermont State Police, safety is the main concern for protesters, Vernon residents and law enforcement.

"I just want to reiterate that’s basically all we’re trying to do," she said.

Volunteers will also check on senior citizens living along Governor Hunt Road to ensure their safety, Roydon said, providing the emergency management office phone number (802-257-0709) if assistance is needed. "Please contact us, we’re here, we’re available."

Roughly 80 residents attended the forum at Vernon Elementary School.

Two anti-nuclear activists were on hand to explain their blueprint for next week.

Safe & Green Campaign member Randy Kehler, of Colrain, Mass., said they wanted "to let you know what we are planning."

He assured the crowd any affinity groups involved in the actions work on a non-violent code of conduct that was unanimously endorsed last September. The code includes a strict prohibition on drugs and alcohol, no verbal or physical violence, no destruction of property, no animals (except service dogs) and to keep an open attitude with those who have an opposing view.

O’Donnell worried about other groups coming into town as part of the larger protest, but Kehler said he did not know about any such actions. But if that changes, Kehler said they will contact the police department.

Kehler and Bob Bady, who is involved with several alliances to close Yankee, told police protests could begin this weekend, with a larger event based in Brattleboro on March 22 and a vigil at the gates of the plant on March 24.

Bady, a Brattleboro resident, said the first planned event at the plant is Wednesday sometime around noon when a group of Buddhist nuns and monks will arrive on foot. A small crowd will be there to greet them.

He also said one affinity group wants a "quiet vigil" at the plant on March 24.

"Beyond that, we have nothing planned for Vernon," Bady added.

It was difficult for Bady to convince the Vernon crowd, heavily supportive of the plant and Entergy, of the protesters’ good intentions. For Yankee advocates, it seemed like a lot of planning for the expected numbers given by the protesters.

"What we have here is anarchy," said John Butterfield, a resident of Governor Hunt Road. "They are here without permission."

After about an hour, grumblings in the audience became louder after Bady said he would like to see the plant closed in Vernon.

People in attendance yelled "We want it here," and "Go home where you belong." Another asked the protesting groups to pick up the tab for any overtime pay or damage in town.

"If there was any property damage that was caused by one of the people in the demonstration, I think I would encourage our group to come and repair it," Bady said.

The town and Entergy have already started taking precautions for any actions around the plant.

Larry Smith, spokesman for Entergy Vermont Yankee, said the plant has already posted its property to display what is private land and offered to assist any neighboring landowners interested in roping off their yards as well.

"We just want to be good neighbors," Smith said.

The New Orleans-based Entergy, owner and operator of Yankee, is currently involved in a lawsuit against the state of Vermont and has been the focus of anti-nuclear groups for the past several years.

School Board Chairwoman Deb Hebert said the elementary school schedule will go on as normal, but there will be a lockdown to keep unknown individuals out of the building. Principal Mark Speno said he has been in direct contact with police and expects to have an officer stationed at the school.

During the protests, the school will not have recess or lunches outdoors. Administrators have spoken with the children in hopes of making the protests a learning experience.

"We will be teaching them that everyone has the right to have their say in the town, but we want them to be safe. ... This could go on for quite a while and we don’t want the students missing school," Hebert said when asked why the school is not closing during the actions.

Parents asked about possible bus delays, to which Speno said his administration has the ability to contact drivers if an issue arises.

Vernon Police Chief Mary Beth Hebert said her department has met with other law enforcement agencies, personnel at the plant and various representatives from affinity groups for months in preparation for these protests.

She said the police force has dealt with many protests at Yankee in the past and "it’s nothing new to us," saying all activists coming into town have been peaceful, and officers have had zero incidents of crime or property damage.

"We protect all people in this town and all people who come into it," she said.

Bady reiterated Kehler’s earlier statement about remaining in contact with police.

"We’ve always told [Chief Hebert] exactly what we plan to do, and we always do that," Bady said. "We’re not into guerilla actions. We’re committed to not disrupting anybody’s life in this town."

In an e-mail to the Reformer, Brattleboro Police Chief Eugene Wrinn said he has met with representatives from the protesting organizations and they are "working together to ensure that the events go smoothly and the groups are allowed to express their opinions while limiting the disruption to the general public and to ensure that they are safe."

Some Vernon residents also became antsy about having the Town Offices open for protesters to use the facilities.

Chief Hebert said "it would be a nice gesture" for it to remain open. O’Donnell said the Selectboard has not made a decision on whether to close the building, but cited concerns with the septic system if there is a lot of use of the facilities.

"If people are going in and out of the Town Office, it’s going to be a total disruption anyway," she said, to which Yankee supporters questioned the use of an outdoor sanitation facility on public property and called for tighter restrictions against any protests.

"We can’t stop people from coming here to protest because of a port-a-potty," O’Donnell added. "We’re doing the best we can under the law."

At this time, police say the only street involved in the protest will be Governor Hunt Road. Authorities would only shut down a portion of the road if there is an increase of vehicle traffic while making sure businesses on the street will remain open for customers.

When asked if police are planning for an Occupy Wall Street-type protest (where activists could set up tents and inhabit property in town), Chief Hebert said she cannot talk about the department’s handling of such a scenario, but are planning for such a move.

"We planned for everything," the chief said.

Bady invited Vernon residents to visit the Brattleboro Common on Thursday, March 22, to see the protesters face-to-face to relieve some of their concerns.

Pro-Yankee marchers asked residents to attend a rally in front of the plant today, beginning at 5 p.m. to show their support.