Guy Page: Settlement builds foundation for hope at Vermont Yankee

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On March 2, nine diverse organizations reached a settlement agreement to support NorthStar's plan to decommission Vermont Yankee and restore the Vernon site for potential redevelopment within a decade.

The settlement comes just a few weeks before hearings are scheduled to begin before the Vermont Public Utilities Commission, the state court for energy projects. A public hearing will be held at 7 p.m. on April 12 at Brattleboro Union High School.

This decisive agreement was signed after two months of intensive negotiations by four state agencies, plant owner Entergy, buyer NorthStar, the Windham Regional Commission, the town of Vernon, two Native American tribes and the New England Coalition, which has opposed Vermont Yankee even before the plant was built in 1972. Just one negotiating party, the Conservation Law Foundation, declined to sign.

Before the State of Vermont could agree to the plan, the Vermont Attorney General, the Vermont Department of Health, the Agency of Natural Resources, and the Vermont Public Service Department needed assurances that NorthStar has the money and skill to finish the job satisfactorily.

In response, NorthStar improved an already strong package with these financial commitments.

Benefits include: An increase in its support agreement from $125 million to $140 million; the establishment of an interest-bearing escrow account that will initially be funded with $30 million and will reach a minimum balance of $55 million; a $25 million NorthStar subcontractor guaranty; and a $30 million Pollution Legal Liability insurance product that will provide coverage for site restoration activities.

For its part, Entergy will contribute an estimated $30 million for site restoration, and also will contribute another $40 million, if needed.

To its credit, the state did not use the settlement as an ATM machine to fund state programs, as was the practice of some recent administrations.

Windham Regional Commission and the town of Vernon now have the ability to plan for a future in which redevelopment may begin in as early as 10 years.

NorthStar also agreed separately with Vernon to provide tax stabilization for six years, reimburse expert-witness expenses related to the sale, and consider making parts of the site accessible during decommissioning for redevelopment purposes.

Through the negotiation process, the Elnu Abenaki tribe and the Missisquoi Abenaki tribe asked for and received a commitment to a site study and as little disturbance as necessary to the Connecticut River location to their ancestors' settlement and fishing grounds. According to tribal spokesperson Richard Holschuh, NorthStar kept its promise to meet with and listen to Abenaki representatives.

Perhaps most surprising was the approval of NEC. Spokesperson Schuyler Gould told the Valley Advocate, "We feel on balance that this is a good deal for the state of Vermont and we're ready to move forward with that and support NorthStar's efforts."

In response to the safety and environmental concerns expressed by NEC, NorthStar committed to: Finish the job with a radiological dose limit of 15 millirems/year, and attempt to attain 10 MREM; complete a comprehensive site investigation and take corrective action; comply with the Vermont Radiological Health Rule to protect workers and the general public; submit plans for taking groundwater samples, leaving below-grade structures in place; conduct site remediation to industrial standards, and in some instances to residential standards; and remove all above-ground structures, except several needed for onsite fuel storage, administration, the VELCO switchyard, and the railroad spur, and remove all underground structures to a depth of at least 4 feet below ground.

In sum, the settlement happened only after both buyer and seller went the extra mile to address concerns about finances, environment, and safety. It's a strong foundation for a new beginning at Vermont Yankee.

Guy Page of Berlin is the communications director of the Vermont Energy Partnership, a coalition of businesses, labor groups, development organizations and individuals committed to clean, safe, affordable and reliable energy in Vermont. Vermont Yankee is a VTEP member. Page is also a member of the coordinating committee of the Consumer Liaison Group of ISO-New England, operators of New England's electricity grid. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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