Vt. group files over VY leaks

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BRATTLEBORO -- An environmental advocacy group submitted paperwork for a Public Service Board docket against the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant claiming the facility has violated the state's latest groundwater public trust law.

In a testimony filed with the state's Public Service Board today, the Vermont Natural Resources Council asserts the tritium leak at the Vernon-based nuclear station breaches a 2008 act approved by the Legislature declaring groundwater is a public trust resource.

"Every Vermonter owns Vermont's groundwater," said Jon Groveman, the VNRC water program co-director.

"If Vermont Yankee is claiming they have not violated Vermont law because the groundwater they have polluted has not spread to drinking water wells off their property, they are wrong," he said.

Officials at Vermont Yankee, and its owner Entergy Corp., know of the docket filling and are reserving comment at this time.

"We are aware of it and it is under review by Entergy lawyers," said Larry Smith, manager of communications for Vermont Yankee.

Plant advocates have argued there is no evidence any tritium has leaked into Vernon residential wells. Samples of water from the Connecticut River have also shown no detectable tritium levels.

Entergy has applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to extend its operating license for another 20 years. But the plant owners must receive NRC approval, as well as a certificate of public good from the PSB and authorization from the Vermont Legislature.

In February, the state Senate nixed Entergy's bid to operate past March 2012 in a 26-4 vote against the station. Vermont is the only state in the country giving its legislative branch power in a nuclear plant's relicensing.

Entergy and the state's pro-nuclear circle lost much of its public support earlier this year after plant officials notified the state that water containing tritium, a naturally occurring radioactive material, was discovered in monitoring wells on-site near the Connecticut River.

The leaking of radioactive substances drew the VNRC to file testimony in the PSB docket today. The docket (No. 7600) is a broad review of whether or not Vermont Yankee should continue operations after its license expires in two years.

Groveman, who also serves as the VNRC legal counsel, told the Reformer that the groundwater is a public trust resource belonging to all Vermonters.

"Groundwater is to be managed for the benefit of all Vermonters and the public trust doctrine does not allow for contamination of groundwater, even beneath your own property," he said. "Groundwater flows across property boundaries so these boundaries are meaningless when it comes to public trust resources."

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The groundwater resources act (No. 199 upon passage) refers to Senate bill 304 in the 2008 session. It declares groundwater as a public trust resource managed for the benefit of all state citizens.

Designating it as a resource "shall not be construed to allow a new right of legal action by an individual except to remedy a particularized interest related to water quantity," according to the 2008 act summary. "A groundwater withdrawal is presumed to comply with public trust requirements if used for farming, domestic use, a permitted public water system, a permitted potable water supply, or dairy processing, or is permitted under the new permit program established by this act."

Those who obtain a groundwater withdrawal permit is presumed to engage in "reasonable use" of groundwater that will not cause "unreasonable harm."

The VNRC defense team pushed for the groundwater measure since 2004 when, prior to the change, only surface water was considered part of the public trust.

Organizations such as the VNRC and the Conservation Law Foundation (a decades-old New England nonprofit that has taken an adverse view of nuclear power) say the repeated discoveries of leaks since January have not only violated the 2-year-old statute, but also cast doubt on the plant's reliability.

CLF Senior Attorney Sandy Levine said her group is also filing testimony with the PSB because of the lack of reassurance about water contamination from Entergy.

"Groundwater is clearly protected as a public trust in Vermont," she said.

"The groundwater belongs to everybody, nobody is allowed to put pollution into groundwater that will harm or impact the ability of others to use that groundwater. In the case of Vermont Yankee, they've been discharging tritium and other contaminants into the groundwater, that is a clear violation of Vermont law," Levine added.

In February, the Vermont Attorney General's office said the scope of the groundwater law is not entirely clear in regards to permitting and the use of groundwater.

Since the leaks, Yankee officials have released an internal investigation citing the cause of the problem and have improved plant safety methods.

"Our plan is to convince the Legislature and the people of Vermont to regain their trust first and then to show them that this plant is reliable and safe and will continue to be reliable and safe," Michael Colomb, the plant's site vice-president, told the Associated Press in June.

Officials with the Vermont Department of Health reported they were satisfied with Vermont Yankee's follow-through on its remediation plans.

Dr. William E. Irwin, radiological health chief for the health department, could not be reached for comment in regards to the groundwater contamination.

Chris Garofolo can be reached at cgarofolo@reformer.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.


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