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Agency of Natural Resources opens public comment period for Vermont Yankee permit

BRATTLEBORO—A few short months before Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is to cease operations, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) has posted a draft renewal water permit for public comment.

If approved, the draft water discharge permit would replace a permit that expired about eight years ago. VY reapplied for the permit Sept. 30, 2006.

ANR will take comment on the permit as part of the renewal process through Aug. 3. A public hearing will be held in Vernon, where the plant is sited, in mid August.

VY taps water from the Connecticut River as part of its cooling system for the reactor and spent fuel pool. Because the plant returns water back into the river, it is required to have a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) discharge permit, which is issued at the state level.

Citing economic woes, VY’s owner, Entergy, announced last August that it would close the 42-year-old plant the end of this year. ANR’s proposed renewal permit would run through Dec. 31, 2015.

“As Vermont Yankee intends to close its facility in December 2014, the renewal term allows [it] to establish a post-closure operation regime and provides ANR time to evaluate and permit the facility’s post-closure discharge,” wrote the agency in a press release.

That statement also quoted an agreement reached between Entergy and the Shumlin Administration on Dec. 23, 2013: “VY shall operate the VY Station in accordance with its existing National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System ("NPDES") permit. Entergy VY and ANR agree to continue to pursue issues related to Entergy VY’s thermal discharge through ANR’s NPDES permitting process, in accordance with state and federal law.”

While the agency noted in a fact sheet that it would recommend granting the permit, approval is not certain.

Critics of VY’s practice of discharging warm water into the river have said that the warmer waters can harm aquatic life, particularly American shad. Some critics have urged ANR to require the plant use existing cooling towers rather than pump power station water straight into the Connecticut.

In its fact sheet explaining the draft permit, ANR acknowledged criticism: that increased river water temperature as a result of the plant’s discharge could take a toll on plant and animal life there.

The agency also said that cooling towers would best mitigate harm to aquatic life, but given the plant’s pending closure, a hybrid approach — cooling towers and straight discharge — is adequate.

In 2012, state Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, a river steward for Vermont and New Hampshire with the Connecticut River Watershed Council and critic of VY’s discharge permit, presented a study looking at water temperature above, at, and below the plant.

The study, conducted by Ken Hickey and Peter Shanahan with Massachusetts-based Hydro Analysis, is based on five years of temperature data gathered by VY. Since the 1970s, plant employees have used a mathematical formula called Equation 1.1 to determine the temperature of the discharged water entering the river. Hickey and Shanahan also reviewed actual river temperature data.

The team reported that the actual temperature readings consistently read higher than the data yielded by Equation 1.1, which they determined brought river water temperatures above the range ANR allowed.

“The use of Equation 1.1 to compute the temperature rise as a surrogate for the actual, readily available temperature rise measurements has resulted in the river routinely experiencing temperature increases [in waters] below the Vermont Yankee Power Station that are far greater than those specified in the permit,” the two wrote in their report.

ANR also acknowledged VY’s use of an equation developed in the 1970s as an inadequate and outdated substitute for taking actual water temperature readings. Again, however, citing the plant’s pending closure, the agency will allow VY to continue using Equation 1.1.

ANR’s draft permit has also cut the requirement of an oversight advisory group called the Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC).

The advisory group was composed of representatives from the Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts environmental and fisheries programs and the coordinator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Connecticut River Anadromous (referring to fish that migrate upriver from the sea to spawn) Fish Program. The group met with Entergy at least annually.

A new requirement added to the draft permit requires that VY submit its environmental monitoring studies data in a usable digital format – such as Excel — to ANR annually by May 31.

“Now that the permit is out for comment, we look forward to hearing from interested parties and stakeholders on how the thermal discharge should be addressed during the remainder of Vermont Yankee’s operation,” said ANR Secretary Deb Markowitz.

For the draft NPDES permit and VY fact sheet, visit www.watershedmanagement.vt.gov/ww/htm/notices.htm.

The public can send comments to the Agency of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Conservation, Watershed Management Division, One National Life Dr., Main-2, Montpelier, VT 05620-3522, fax 802-828-1544, or write ANR.WSMDWastewaterComments@state.vt.us.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #262 (Wednesday, July 9, 2014). This story appeared on page A4.

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