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Windham County implores legislators: Help our economy

House committees hear from local organizations about post-VY concerns

VERNON—The shuttering of Vermont Yankee at the end of 2014 will change the face of Windham County, local organizations told state lawmakers amid school announcements over Vernon Elementary School’s intercom.

Closing the 41-year-old nuclear reactor — an operation that employs approximately 620 people — will alter the region’s economic and social landscape, said those testifying Monday to members of the two House committees: Commerce and Economic Development, and Natural Resources and Energy.

The lawmakers hosted a joint meeting to take testimony on VY’s closing.

Questions also loomed about the decommissioning and site-restoration processes.

The lawmakers appeared to experience a learning curve during the hearing.

Local organizations said that Vermont Yankee’s closing will not set off an economic pinch for the region when money dries up from a number of plant-related sources, ranging from the generation tax that Entergy pays to the state to the company’s estimated $300,000 in annual charitable giving.

Instead, representatives of the Windham Regional Commission (WRC), Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS), and town officials from Brattleboro and Vernon said the plant’s closing will accelerate issues plaguing an already-ill economy, such as low wages and high unemployment.

According to numbers from the WRC, the plant employs about 2 percent of Windham County, while its estimated $65.7 million payroll accounts for about 5 percent of the county’s wages.

That perspective, however, raises the question: Should the state favor a region with pre-existing difficulties over other areas in the state?

“We need to feel the love from the state of Vermont,” said Pat Moulton Powden, director of workforce development for the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation.

Governor Peter Shumlin, she said, “has assured us we will feel the love.”

O’Donnell: Reciprocity for Vernon

Within Vernon’s borders live 78 households who have a family member employed at the plant, said Vernon Selectboard chair and former Representative Patricia O’Donnell. Brattleboro comes in second for the most households employed at VY.

“We are a community,” said O’Donnell, who says that she supports VY “because of the people.”

“But we need jobs,” she said. “Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.”

O’Donnell outlined the effects the plant’s closure will have on the town. She stressed that by housing the plant, Vernon has helped the state reap millions in tax revenues. Now, she said, it is the state’s turn to help Vernon.

The town has multiple homes in foreclosure because people have lost their jobs, she said, and “now, it’s getting worse.”

Of course, the town has known the plant will eventually close, O’Donnell added. People know they will retire, she said, but she asked: how many have prepared for that eventuality?

O’Donnell said the town of Vernon will do what it needs to do financially, like cut the budget and eliminate jobs. But the true loss, she said, will be losing the people who move away.

“I’m done fighting,” said O’Donnell, a longtime enthusiastic supporter of the nuclear station. She said she now wants everyone to get along on the often-divisive issue of VY.

Campany: Fight for the stronger buffer

WRC Executive Director Christopher Campany outlined concerns about the plant’s decommissioning process and the “rate of change” it would spur.

The commission is advocating for a quick decommissioning process, a protocol named DECON by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), over the potentially prolonged SAFSTOR decommissioning.

According to Entergy representatives, the NRC allows a plant to remain in SAFSTOR as long as 50 years, but the company could elect to complete the process in five or 10.

According to the WRC, the “stronger buffer” of DECON keeps more local labor employed longer compared to SAFSTOR.

The WRC has participated in Entergy’s bid for a Certificate for Public Good, currently in front of the Public Service Board.

Campany said relationships among employees, spouses, children, neighbors underscore the plant closing.

“The nature and rate of change affect more than jobs, the economy, the tax base, and the restoration of a site,” said Campany. “We feel it is in the best interest of the region to advocate for a decommissioning process that minimizes disruption to these relationships.”

This generation has benefited from the plant’s operation, and should not leave the plant clean-up to its grandchildren, he added.

The WRC has constantly questioned whether Entergy’s federally required decommissioning fund — valued at contains approximately $570 million — is adequate to decommission the plant and restore its site.

“[The WRC calls] upon the Governor to establish a transparent deliberative body that will oversee the Vermont Yankee closure and decommissioning for the long term and we ask that the WRC be given a seat on this body,” he said. “It is out hope that Entergy will be a willing partner in this effort.”

Campany cautioned committee members that the NRC might allow Entergy to charge a broad category of expenses to the decommissioning fund, like new state taxes. He reminded members the fund is finite and the state should understand new initiatives may deplete the fund.

But, Campany noted, as a private corporation, Entergy will make its own decisions. Much of the what will happen next to the region is out of the region’s, or state’s, hands.

“We see this as a shared responsibility” between the region and state, said Stephen Morse, chair of the SeVEDS post-VY task force.

The regional organizations made a pitch for a little over $2.3 million to mitigate immediate financial needs.

The monies would go toward multiple economic development initiatives on which SeVEDS, WRC, and BDCC are collaborating.

“There’s lot’s more still to do,” said Powden. “We still have a lot more questions than answers on the Entergy workforce profile.”

The silver lining, said Powden, is that the region has a game plan.

“We’re putting a lot of our eggs in an entrepreneur[ship] bucket,” said Powden.

SeVEDS representatives shared the economic data it has collected over five years.

“We need your help to step up implementation,” said Powden to the lawmakers.

A region in need

Despite VY’s average salary of $100,000, other wages in the region have remained stagnant since the 1970s, according to SeVEDS.

Although not the only Vermont county struggling, said Powden, Windham County stands alone in some aspects.

The county’s demographics feature a high percentage of people not in the workforce who live off income from a pension, government subsidies, or investments.

For such people, their personal financial health doesn’t depend on the health of the regional economy in the same way as wage earners’ fate does, said Powden.

Powden said Windham County feels the loss of young people and wage stagnations more acutely than elsewhere in Vermont.

Michael Twomey, vice president of external affairs-wholesale at Entergy, also made a presentation to the lawmakers.

Twomey reiterated that Entergy decided to close VY due to financial reasons only.

The company submitted its official Notice of Cessation of plant operations to the NRC in September.

According to Twomey, the NRC authorizes plant operators up to 60 years to decommission dormant plants with either SAFSTOR or DECON.

The company maintains SAFSTOR as an option, said Twomey: “Nobody should be surprised by that.”

Entergy has “not made a determination of the length of SAFSTOR,” said Twomey. Under either decommissioning protocol, the company could start decommissioning after 5 years or wait 50 years, he said.

He told the committees that from the company’s perspective, SAFSTOR offers “three principal benefits” over DECON.

The decommissioning process under SAFSTOR exposes workers to lower radiological levels because the spent fuel is allowed to cool and radiation levels are allowed to decline before workers move the material to storage. The method might also mean that less radioactive waste will need to be disposed of.

Finally, the extended decommissioning time allows the decommissioning funds to continue accumulating interest, said Twomey.

The NRC gives operators two years to submit a spent-fuel management report, he said.

VY has generated about 3,900 spent-fuel assemblies over its operating life, all currently either in dry-cask storage, the spent-fuel pool, or actively generating energy in the reactor.

The spent fuel pool holds the most waste, with 2,650 assemblies.

The company estimates it needs approximately 22 additional dry casks, bringing the total to 58, to store spent fuel and to construct a pad for the casks to sit on.

When asked some questions by the committee, Twomey said he hadn’t brought the company lawyers with him.

Regarding the decommissioning fund, Twomey said that decommissioning included a “whole range of costs and expenses related to this project, and we have to pay those expenses.”

The company has not ruled out taking money from the fund for expenses, as permitted by the NRC.

Fixing the corners

House Commerce and Economic Development Committee Chair William Botzow, D-Pownal, commented on Windham County’s financial issues.

Botzow related advice that he once received from an artist: people dissatisfied with aspects of a painting should look at the corners.

“If you fix the corners, you can fix the whole thing,” the artist told Botzow.

The same might hold true for the counties in the corners of Vermont, the lawmaker said.

Still, during a hearing break, Botzow said that he wasn’t sure why one region should receive extra treatment.

Given the county’s economics, Windham County won’t ultimately fail because of VY, he said.

Natural Resources and Energy Committee Chair Anthony Klein, D-Montpelier, said that he hoped the Legislature could be part of building a “helpful equation” for the region.

The economic stats for the county’s financial health and VY’s closure present huge issues, he said.

Klein said the county’s economic situation provides a “valuable lesson” for everyone to see what happens when a town or region places all its economic eggs in one basket, as happened when Windham County’s economy was disproportionately driven by Vermont Yankee.

“Is it really, really worth it?” he asked.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #227 (Wednesday, October 30, 2013). This story appeared on page A1.

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