Supporters dominate VY hearing

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BRATTLEBORO — With two members of the state Public Utility Commission looking on, a parade of supporters made their case for the sale of Vermont Yankee at a meeting here Thursday night.

Those testifying at the commission's final public hearing on the proposed sale to NorthStar Group Services were overwhelmingly in favor of the deal. They cited economic and environmental reasons, along with their trust in NorthStar.

"We are satisfied that NorthStar will be a good partner for us and can in fact do the decommissioning in the way that they believe that they can," Vernon resident Janet Rasmussen told the commissioners.

There were, however, still some dissenting voices. Lissa Weinmann of Brattleboro questioned NorthStar's cleanup resources and was skeptical of redevelopment possibilities at the Vermont Yankee site.

"For this sale, I would say there are still many factors to consider," Weinmann told the commissioners.

The utility commission, along with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is considering whether Entergy should be allowed to sell the idled nuclear plant and its decommissioning trust fund to New York-based NorthStar.

NorthStar says it can clean up most of the site by 2030 and possibly as early as 2026. That's in stark contrast to Entergy's decommissioning plan, which could take up to 60 years.

Critics have questioned NorthStar's expertise and financial wherewithal to follow through on its promises. But a recent memorandum of understanding signed by Entergy, NorthStar, several state agencies and other interested parties has quieted much of that criticism by including greater financial support for decommissioning and more stringent site restoration standards.

Utility commission members Margaret Cheney and Sarah Hofmann heard mostly from sale supporters during a hearing Thursday at Brattleboro Union High School. The commission's third member and chairman, Anthony Roisman, has recused himself from Vermont Yankee matters.

Safety was a common theme among those who favor NorthStar's purchase.

"For those who don't know, we have a school right opposite the plant. None of us would put our children in danger," Vernon resident Lynda Starorypinski said. "And that's why it was so important to us to make sure that NorthStar made commitments to keep the decommissioning safe."

Vernon officials said they'd done their homework on the proposed sale. Throughout that review, "the most important thing was that our people will be safe, and we believe that that's the case," said Rasmussen, a member of the Vernon Planning and Economic Development Commission.

Redevelopment and economic opportunity were two other prominent topics.

Vernon Selectboard Chairman Josh Unruh said the decommissioning project "is more important to the town of Vernon than it is to anywhere else in the state of Vermont." He cited negative economic impacts including the town's lost tax proceeds due to Vermont Yankee's shutdown in late 2014.

"These are the things we want to counter with getting Vermont Yankee decommissioned and being able to redevelop that site so we can regain some tax revenue that we've lost," Unruh said. (Unruh is the advertising sales manager for the Reformer.)

The positive impacts of accelerated decommissioning and redevelopment can have impacts far beyond Vernon, said Rob Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

"If we can restore the economic prosperity to this region the faster we can do that, the better," Roper said.

Others said the recent memorandum of understanding in the Vermont Yankee case is by itself a positive indicator of the business climate in Vermont.

"What's very important to our manufacturers is that we have a predictable, stable, affordable place to do business," said Bill Sayre, representing the Associated Industries of Vermont. "And to me, this particular agreement exemplifies what can be accomplished when all parties aim to achieve compromise in a way that serves the general public interest."

But others are not yet ready to get on board.

Malachi Brennan of South Royalton told the utility commission that "the promises in the MOU are just promises. We haven't seen proof of insurance agreements or other funding."

Brennan echoed liability concerns that have been raised by Conservation Law Foundation.

"This deal appears to transfer all liability to a subsidiary of NorthStar and leave none on Entergy," he said. "These liability transfers make sense when an operator is selling a plant to another operator. But they are entirely unprecedented for a cleanup transfer."

Betsy Williams of Westminster West said she wanted more information about long-term monitoring at the Vermont Yankee site. She also urged the utility commissioners to think about the wider impacts of any problems or accidents involving radioactive spent fuel.

"We're talking about a very, very wide circle of people who would be affected," Williams said. "That's why it seems to me that we have to think well beyond the boundaries of Vernon or Windham County or even Vermont when you're thinking about these decisions."

While Thursday was the last public hearing on the Vermont Yankee sale, the utility commission still is taking comment via mail or email or through https://epuc.vermont.gov/, an electronic filing system.

E-mailed comments can be submitted to puc.clerk@vermont.gov, and mail should be sent to Clerk of the Commission, Public Utility Commission; 112 State St., 4th Floor; Montpelier VT 05620. In both cases, commenters should include a clear reference to "Case No. 8880."

The reviews of both the utility commission and the NRC are expected to extend into summer.

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