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Senate committee holds hearing on Windham Countys post-Vermont Yankee economy

BRATTLEBORO—Members of the Vermont Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs heard testimony from community leaders, business owners, and nonprofit organizations last week on Windham County’s economic future post-Vermont Yankee.

Four committee members sought information on Feb. 23 on shifting Windham County’s economy to replace the money generated by Entergy’s Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

“The state has an obligation to help us with the transition,” said Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, the newest member of the committee.

The majority of those giving testimony said that Vermont Yankee’s closure would devastate the Windham County economy.

Committee Chair Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans, said that the state’s official position was that “Vermont Yankee will close on its scheduled date of March 2012.”

But, he added that if Entergy pursues pre-emption litigation in either Vermont or Louisiana, that move could hamper the schedule.

Pre-emption refers to the plant’s owner, Entergy, claiming that only the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the authority to rule on Vermont Yankee’s license. However, Vermont statutes state that the nuclear power plant also needs a Certificate of Public Good from the state Public Service Board to operate, a condition to which Entergy expressly agreed as a condition of its original Certificate for Public Good when it purchased the plant in 2003.

The Vermont Senate voted in February 2010 not to allow the Public Service Board to issue Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee a Certificate of Public Good.

Separation anxiety

Jeff Lewis, executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., said that the thought of losing Vermont Yankee “is like seeing a partner leave,” and that it’s always tough for a community to confront the loss of a core industry, like the 40-year-old nuclear power plant.

Vernon officials agreed with that sentiment.

“The closure of Vermont Yankee will impact Vernon,” said Vernon Selectboard Chair Michael Courtemarche.

According to Courtemarche, the plant comprises 53.4 percent of the town’s Grand List. In addition, Entergy has made multiple donations to town events, infrastructure, and senior housing. Town volunteers like firefighters also work at Vermont Yankee, he said. 

“This isn’t about a company. This is about people,” said former state Rep. Patty O’Donnell of Vernon.

O’Donnell, who is running for the Vernon Selectboard, had served in the Legislature for a decade until she stepped down last year. She volunteers to give presentations on Vermont Yankee around the state on behalf of Entergy.

According to Lewis, Windham County has lost jobs over the past 10 years. The average wage is lower than that of the rest of Vermont and less than New Hampshire and Maine’s by $3,000 a year.

Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, which maintains a neutral position on the status of Vermont Yankee, told the committee that Vermont Yankee accounts for 2 percent of jobs in the region and 5 percent of wages.

John Mullin, dean of the graduate school and professor in the department of landscape architecture and regional planning at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, shared his findings on the impact of the closure of the Yankee Rowe nuclear plant in Massachusetts. 

Mullin, who co-wrote “The Closing of the Yankee Rowe Nuclear Power Plant”  in the Journal of the American Planning Association in 1997, said Windham County would experience a long-term economic impact and not recover quickly.

According to Mullin, plant jobs will be difficult to replace because of their high pay, skill requirements, and a workforce in demand. Those workers who choose to stay do so because they’re tied to the area, but will pay the price of losing a high paycheck and benefits like health insurance.

The tax base of Rowe, Mass., took a hit after the nuclear plant closed. The economic shift also rippled throughout Franklin County, as Yankee Rowe had a local purchasing policy and participated in charitable giving.

Mullin said a few things need to happen for Windham County’s economy to be healthy. The county needs higher paying jobs, to build upon New England’s top industries of education and medicine, and to strengthen rail transportation to Vermont to take advantage of the so-called “knowledge corridor” that stretches from Yale University in New Haven, Conn, to the “Five Colleges” cluster in the Northampton and Amherst area in western Massachusetts.

“Be wired or be gone. Period,” Mullin added.

Mullin said that Entergy could play a role in helping to transition the county’s economy by, for example, stepping down its charitable giving throughout the decommissioning process.

He concluded by saying that the state “has done a miserable job” accessing federal economic development funds and Vermont needed to step up its efforts immediately.

Transition plans?

Galbraith asked those who presented testimony what concrete actions the state could take to support the county during its economic transition.

Lewis said the Southeast Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS) committee, although three years old, had only begun assessing the impact of VY’s closing. He suggested the Senate committee follow up in a few months.

Art Greenbaum, a local contractor, pointed out the region’s assets, such as Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and the soon-to-open Commonwealth Yogurt plant. He said more could be done with industrial land and exploring possibilities of Brattleboro becoming a railroad hub.

He urged the committee to continue the dialogue in the Legislature and within the community. “Action includes funding with dollars,” Greenbaum said.

“There’s going to be a huge [funding] gap and not one we’ll be able to meet,” said Carmen Derby, director of the United Way of Windham County. According to Derby, Entergy has donated about $80,000 per year for the last two years to the United Way of Windham County.

Derby said she hoped the state would aggressively support the Windham County organizations that sought to bring new business to the region.

Melinda Bussino, executive director of the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center, said she hoped the state would help pick up any funding deficits. The Drop In Center receives 7 percent of its budget from Entergy Vermont Yankee. VY spokesman Larry Smith has served on the Drop In Center’s board for 14 years.

O’Donnell suggested the state extend Vernon’s Generation Tax and gradually step up the town’s property taxes to reflect the loss of Vermont Yankee to the Grand List.

“Just saying the state is going to help us out of this is a naive statement,” O’Donnell said to Galbraith.

“I don’t accept that all we do is hear the bad news and there’s nothing we can do about it,” he answered.

Illuzzi asked multiple times why the community hadn’t started assessing and preparing for the closure earlier.

Brattleboro Town Manager Barbra Sondag said it is difficult to discuss the impact of losing an employer that is still operating. “In the eyes of some we are too late, and in the eyes of others, we’re way too early,” she said.

Illuzzi also asked multiple community members whether, given the skilled workforce, infrastructure and mindset of the region, they believed the VY site could be reused for a smaller-sized regional reactor or a plant using a different fuel.

Campany said the approximately-125-acre site would probably be too small for another power plant.

Courtemarche stressed that Entergy owns the land and will have the final say on its subsequent use.

Bob Stevens, of Stevens & Associates Engineering of Brattleboro, said the re-use question was an avenue worth exploring. But he said he believes the solution for Windham County lies in not in redeveloping the site, but rather in fueling the whole economy.

Sondag said the SeVEDS committee has identified three goals for the county regardless of whether Vermont Yankee stays or shuts down — reverse the population decline and return to 2009 levels, raise the average wage to northern New England levels by 2015, and raise the region’s gross domestic product.

“A job is not just a job. We need to be looking at good-paying jobs,” Sondag told the panel.

But to be effective, she said SeVEDS needs more data.

Sen. Galbraith called the VY issue “divisive” but said people could find a common ground to work from.

Committee members Sen. Bill Doyle, R-Washington, and Sen. William H. Carris, D-Rutland, also attended the hearing. Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, sat in on the panel as a guest.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #90 (Wednesday, March 2, 2011).

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