Vermont Yankee suitor to seek cultural consultant

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VERNON — If NorthStar Group Services gets a chance to decommission Vermont Yankee, a "cultural expert" will be watching over the company's work.

In a nod to Native American concerns about the Vernon site's historical importance, NorthStar CEO Scott State is committing to hiring an expert to act as a consultant on matters such as archeology, anthropology and history. The costs of that expert, State pledged, "will not impact the Nuclear Decommissioning Trust or the Site Restoration Trust, and instead will be borne solely by NorthStar."

Rich Holschuh, a Native American activist representing the Elnu Abenaki tribe in Vermont Yankee proceedings, applauded NorthStar's commitment but also expects to stay closely involved in decommissioning issues.

"I see this as the first conversation in an ongoing dialog," Holschuh said.

NorthStar is seeking permission from state and federal regulators to purchase and decommission Vermont Yankee, which stopped producing power nearly three years ago. The New York-based decommissioning company says it can clean up most of the site as early as 2026, which is decades faster than current owner Entergy had been planning.

The Windham County-based Elnu Abenaki tribe is among those participating in the state Public Utility Commission's review of the Vermont Yankee sale. Earlier this year, the tribe submitted testimony detailing the Abenaki's long history in a stretch of the Connecticut River known as the Great Bend — an area that includes the nuclear plant. The tribe also pointed out that, according to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, no formal archeological survey happened prior to Vermont Yankee's construction.

Holschuh argues that the plant's decommissioning is an opportunity to take greater measure of the site's cultural importance.

"In a given place such as the Vermont Yankee site at Great Bend, the presence of all of the ancestors, their actions, their dispositions, their dreams are considered to be still relevant, to be taken into consideration," Holschuh wrote in the tribe's testimony. "What has happened cannot be undone (for it is still here), but it must and can be reckoned with. This should be done in the best manner possible."

The Abenaki testimony elicited an immediate response from NorthStar. Late last month, State and another NorthStar executive met with Elnu Abenaki representatives to discuss the matter. That meeting has spurred NorthStar's pledge to hire a cultural consultant. State said such experts "generally have experience with various cultures, including Native Americans, in connection with public and private projects."

"Some also have affiliations with well-known museums, are or were professors or have a (doctoral degree) in relevant fields," he said.

NorthStar still is working through the details of the consultant's position, so State could not yet offer an exact job description. But he said the consultant likely would be hired prior to the Vermont Yankee sale closing, and he said the expert would play an important role in decommissioning.

"The consultant would assist, with input from the Elnu Abenaki representatives, in developing a cultural resource plan to be implemented by NorthStar on the Vermont Yankee decommissioning project," State said. "This plan would be followed and implemented by our project personnel."

Holschuh said last month's meeting with NorthStar "was a constructive, open exchange, and we both heard each other." He said he's been researching, at NorthStar's request, potential models for a working collaboration between the tribe and the company.

"My main concern is that they do something, and that it be written down so that there's some accountability," Holschuh said.

He added that, in terms of excavation during decommissioning, the tribe wants "some sort of a baseline established so that we have a place to start at and go forward ... so we know what's disturbed and not disturbed."

Both the Elnu Abenaki and the Brattleboro-based anti-nuclear group New England Coalition also have argued that, after decommissioning, the Vermont Yankee property should stay dormant to allow the land to "heal" naturally. That vision isn't shared by the town of Vernon, where planning officials have lobbied for redevelopment. NorthStar also has discussed development opportunities.

Holschuh said he's aware of that disconnect. He said he talked with State about the tribe's wishes and also expects to discuss the matter with Vernon officials.

"Any gains we make are gains in the right direction," Holschuh said.

Mike Faher writes for VTDigger, The Brattleboro Reformer and The Commons. He can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.

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