VERNON—According to the Connecticut River Watershed Council (CRWC), the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon is releasing hot water into the Connecticut River despite an expired state thermal discharge permit.
Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, who works as river steward for the CRWC, said that the heated water changes the river’s overall temperature, damaging the aquatic habitat.
According to a CRWC press release, the Vermont Law School’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic (ENRLC) filed a petition on behalf of the CRWC in February.
The petition asked the state Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) to require Vermont Yankee to “operate its closed-cycle cooling towers to reduce thermal impacts as well as reduce fish mortalities from the intake structure.”
“The ANR should move quickly to issue a new permit that brings Vermont Yankee into compliance with the Clean Water Act and ends the practice of using the Connecticut River as a waste receptacle,” said Pat Parenteau, senior counsel for the ENRLC.
The ANR, which issues Vermont Yankee’s thermal discharge permit, has agreed to review the permit, changing course on a previous decision.
Because the plant is scheduled to close in 2012, the ANR had said no to the review in February.
Deen said, “[Vermont Yankee’s current] permit is called a ‘zombie’ permit, in that it has continued on past its 2006 expiration date, because the agency had not processed the permit renewal application. The Connecticut River has provided an environmental subsidy to Entergy-Vermont Yankee profits long enough.”
Vermont Yankee spokesman Larry Smith acknowledged that the plant’s permit had expired five years ago.
In an e-mail message, Smith wrote that “we look forward to a permit that incorporates and affirms the previous decisions of the Vermont Environmental Court and the Vermont Supreme Court.”
Like coolant through a car’s radiator, a constant flow of river water keeps the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor from overheating.
In a phone interview, Smith said that he wasn’t sure how many gallons of water the permit allowed to be discharged. According to Deen, the plant’s permit allowed operators to discharge 543 million gallons a day into the river, which Deen characterized as “thermal pollution.”
The permit, he said, also allowed the heated water to raise the river’s overall temperature by 5 degrees. The temperature of the water flowing out of the plant can reach as high as 105 degrees.
According to Vermont Yankee’s own tests, said Deen, the water remains heated as far south as Turners Falls, Mass.
In response to questions about raising the river’s temperature, Smith answered, “I’m not an expert.”
Entergy, the plant’s owner, could reduce its thermal footprint by feeding the hot water through its cooling towers after it passes by the reactor, said Deen.
But, Deen added, Entergy employees have told him that bypassing the plant’s cooling system saves electricity that Entergy releases to the New England market.
“That means selling,” said Deen.
Deen, however, doesn’t know how much money goes into Entergy’s pockets per hot gallon flushed into the river, because he’s never seen Entergy’s books.
During the 2003 uprate hearings, in which Entergy asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for permission to produce more power, the CRWC asked how much Entergy made from discharging the hot water directly into the river versus feeding it through Vermont Yankee’s cooling system.
Entergy representatives called the data “proprietary information,” said Deen.
Deen said that the thermal pollution damages the river’s aquatic organisms. Temperature fluctuations trigger many aquatic species’ life changes, like spawning and hatching. Deen said that the rising temperature’s effect on the American shad concerns him.
American Shad swim upstream and spawn when the river reaches 65 degrees, said Deen. After they have spawned, the fish lose their urge to continue upstream. He believes that the shad are spawning farther south because of the heated water coming from Vermont Yankee.
And Deen said that the drop in American Shad population supports his assertion.
In 1991, 37,000 American Shad heading north crossed the Vernon Dam, located below Vermont Yankee. A year later, the ANR issued Vermont Yankee’s discharge permit. In 2009, only 16 shad crossed the Vernon dam.
Worldwide, the population of spawning fish has dropped 60 percent, acknowledged Deen.
“But this isn’t a 60 percent drop. It’s 100 percent,” said Deen. “This temp is stopping them cold as they get to Turners Falls.”
The CRWC will push to protect the Connecticut River from thermal pollution until the plant closes, said Deen.
Deen said that even though the nuclear plant is scheduled to close in March 2012, “that’s not the end of it.” He believes that Entergy won’t stop operating the plant without a court battle.
Although Vermont Yankee has not received the required Certificate of Public Good from Vermont’s Public Service Board, it has received its 20-year license extension from the federal NRC earlier this month.
Despite a memorandum of understanding signed as part of Entergy’s purchase of the plant in 2002, the company has recently commented that only the NRC can determine the plant’s right to operate. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaszko recently acknowledged the state’s right to regulate non-safety-related issues.
Opening the review
Deen said that when the CRWC and ENRLC filed their petition in February, ANR Secretary Deb Markowitz told organization representatives that her agency would not review the permit because the plant would close in 2012.
But that decision has changed. AAccording to Markowitz, “This is the right time to [review the permit].”
The Shumlin Administration is committed to Vermont Yankee’s closure, stressed Markowitz, and the ANR is committed to protecting the environment.
Markowitz said that there were a few good reasons for the five-year wait on Vermont Yankee’s discharge permit prior to her taking the helm of the ANR earlier this year.
Two of the reasons involved court cases, and the third had to do with ANR resources, she said.
ANR was awaiting the resolutions of two court cases, said Markowitz. The first, on the state level, was resolved in 2008 and took issue with Vermont Yankee’s discharge permit. The second, Entergy Corp v. River Keepers Inc ., went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was resolved in 2009.
The national case dealt with whether the Clean Water Act forbids the EPA’s use of cost-benefit analysis when determining the best technologies for power plant cooling systems. Markowitz said that, based on the court’s decision, the EPA is in the process of writing new guidelines, which are expected soon.
Finally, the ANR did not review the permit earlier because it does not retain in-house experts to help the agency scientifically evaluate the impact of thermal discharge on the river.
But, said Markowitz, legislators added a provision during the 2009 session, allowing the ANR to charge permit applicants like Entergy for the cost of hiring consultants and experts.
Markowitz estimates that the permit review process will take 8 to 12 months.
The CRWC’s petition also requested that the ANR open Vermont Yankee’s environmental advisory committee to more public input and scrutiny.
“We feel that the meetings should be warned to the public and that there should be some representative public organizations sitting on the committee, such as the Windham Regional Commission or the CRWC,” said Deen.
Markowitz said that opening the board’s membership is unlikely. She said that the committee is a scientific board, and that it is not appropriate for committee members to also be advocates.
The committee’s meetings, however, are open to the public.