Questions dominate gas plant debate
Town Moderator Tim Arsenault conducts a public meeting on a proposed gas-fired power plant on Nov. 10 as Vernon Planning Commission members look on.

Questions dominate gas plant debate

Vernon officials, developers of possible 600MW facility say they will work to find answers

VERNON — In making the first detailed proposal for a gas-fired power plant here, the Planning Commission threw out some big numbers at a Nov. 10 meeting: 600 megawatts of power production, $750 million in development costs, 400 to 600 construction jobs.

But questions far outpaced answers during a 90-minute session at Vernon Elementary School, where some in a standing-room-only crowd raised health, safety, and environmental concerns even as others argued for new jobs and tax revenue to cushion the blow of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant's closure.

If town officials were looking for consensus, they didn't find it.

“The takeaway is that there are a lot of questions that we need to answer,” said Planning Commission Chair Bob Spencer.

At the same time, it did not seem that the generally wary crowd had derailed the project.

“What I heard is that we need to be post-meeting responsive and provide additional, and more detailed, information,” said Don Campbell, a Winhall resident and former utility investment specialist who has been spearheading early planning for the possible gas plant.

“We are working on this now,” Campbell said. “It is an important decision with a learning curve that encompasses a lot of factors.”

Loss of VY, potential of pipeline

Last year's shutdown of Vermont Yankee is the main factor in the town's pursuit of a natural-gas plant. While there is no chance of siting a gas facility inside Yankee's protected area due to the ongoing presence of spent nuclear fuel, there remains extensive electrical infrastructure nearby that a new plant could tie into.

The other big factor is the proposed Kinder Morgan Northeast Energy Direct pipeline project, which could bring natural gas from the shale fields of Pennsylvania to the New England market.

The pipeline - which has not yet received Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval - could run through northern Massachusetts before turning into New Hampshire, and officials say a 7-mile extension would reach the area of Vermont Yankee.

And, while not everyone agrees with this notion, some say it's Vernon's destiny to be involved in the business of power production.

“Vernon has been generating power for the state of Vermont for over 100 years,” said Patty O'Donnell, a former Selectboard member and former state lawmaker who now serves on the Planning Commission.

“We have the hydro plant. We stepped up to the plate and had the nuclear power plant,” O'Donnell said. “It's who we are. It's what we've always been.”

'A lot of it's just up in the air'

For more than a year, the planning commission has been meeting with Campbell and his partner, Brattleboro resident Hervey Scudder, to flesh out a proposal for a natural-gas plant.

Officials said such a plant could come online by 2019 or 2020, but they acknowledged that the state and federal permitting processes have not yet begun and that many details - including the exact site - remain unclear.

“There's no specific site suggested in Vernon at this point for a plant,” Spencer said at the outset of the Nov. 10 meeting. “There is no specific route for a pipeline connection proposed. So a lot of it's just up in the air.”

Some new details emerge

The meeting's purpose was to gauge preliminary public opinion of the gas-plant idea, and planning commission members started the discussion by offering new details.

Officials are looking at a plant occupying 20 acres and generating approximately 600 megawatts, which would be only slightly less than Vermont Yankee's former power-production capacity.

Employment levels, however, would be far lower than Yankee's were.

While planners anticipate 400 to 600 construction jobs over an 18-to-24-month time period, permanent gas-plant employment was estimated at between 25 and 30 workers.

But Planning Commission member Martin Langeveld led the crowd through a power-point presentation that highlighted a host of other potential benefits. Those include bringing more power generation online to offset regional losses from plant closures, along with introducing a new energy source to the area - with the theoretical opportunity for additional spurs reaching deeper into Windham County.

“There are potential customers,” Langeveld said. “There are some commercial users in Brattleboro and in the region now that are trucking in natural gas, and they certainly would benefit from having lower rates if that gas was coming to them in a pipeline. And it certainly would be a safer situation, too.”

There's also the fact that a gas plant could replenish Vernon's coffers.

Vermont Yankee's value has been declining, but the property still accounts for nearly half of the town's grand list value. The town's current tax-stabilization agreement with plant owner Entergy values Vermont Yankee at $280 million, and that's expected to drop in the next agreement.

“We are in negotiations with Vermont Yankee right now, but it is a closed nuclear-power plant that is not generating any power,” O'Donnell said. “So at the end of these negotiations, we will be fortunate in this town if our taxes haven't tripled.”

“Now, that's not a reason to vote for a gas plant, and every one of us knows that,” she added. “If it's unsafe, certainly none of us would want it in our backyard.”

Safety concerns

Safety was a recurring theme on Nov. 10. Spencer noted that he and other planning commission members, along with Campbell and Scudder, recently visited a gas-fired plant in Middletown, Conn.

“It was very obvious that safety and cleanliness and security were high priorities,” Spencer said.

At the same time, officials acknowledged that the same plant was the site of a 2010 explosion that killed six workers. That won't be far from the minds of those who have concerns about siting a gas plant near Vermont Yankee.

“I'm just thinking, what could go wrong?” said Nancy Braus, a Putney resident and longtime antinuclear activist and Vermont Yankee foe. “An explosion of highly flammable gas right next to a non-decommissioned nuclear power plant? I find that very frightening.”

Added another resident: “I'd just like to remind people that nuclear power plants don't blow up. Gas plants do. And I can't imagine that we're even considering siting one of those near the school.”

Still another commenter asked whether local firefighters have the capacity to deal with a gas-plant incident. “We have not asked about that or explored that [yet], so we're going to put that on the list,” Langeveld responded.

Several others questioned the health impacts of air pollution from a gas plant.

“We can do cost analysis, we can look at the money, we can look at the taxes - [but] we need to think about the kids,” Vernon resident David Webb said. “Is it worth it? I think we need to think about that.”

The Planning Commission's presentation attempted to address environmental concerns by portraying a gas plant as relatively low-impact. There would be “no significant offsite noise,” officials said. A gas facility would have a smaller footprint, emit less light pollution, and attract much less traffic than Vermont Yankee.

Campbell also stepped forward to tout the efficiency of the plant he's envisioning.

“This plant would have a superior heat rate - i.e., use far fewer BTUs to create the same level of energy - than virtually any of the other plants in New England ISO,” Campbell said. “If you're burning less fuel, you're also at the same time emitting less pollution.”

But there's another environmental concern affiliated with a natural-gas plant: the fact that the Kinder Morgan pipeline would carry gas extracted via the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.”

Both Vermont and New York have banned the practice.

The Planning Commission is taking a pass on the fracking debate. “We took the position that, that's a decision being made elsewhere,” Langeveld said. “So, regardless of whether we take any gas out of this pipeline for a gas plant here or not, the same amount of gas is going to be taken out of the ground in Pennsylvania. It's just not our decision to make.”

That didn't sit well with some at the Nov. 10 meeting, and several attendees noted that the Kinder Morgan pipeline has met stiff opposition in the Massachusetts and New Hampshire towns along its proposed path.

One commenter complained that, by building a gas plant in Vernon, “we would be enabling Kinder Morgan to have one more reason to build this and just steamroll our neighbors.”

“This is not about Kinder Morgan,” Planning Commission Vice Chairwoman Janet Rasmussen responded. “It's about Vernon.”

Potential for a financial boost

Not everyone who spoke at the Vernon meeting had such concerns.

Selectboard member Josh Unruh said officials need to look into possible health impacts but pointed to the gas plant's economic benefits.

“So far, I've been very much in favor of this power plant,” he said. “The financial side is significant.”

Vernon resident Sandy Morrison said she has been “really concerned about where we're headed with the taxes in town. And, of course, energy is a concern. I'd love to see lots of solar and wind, but I know that's not enough.”

Morrison recalled raising a family in the early days of Vermont Yankee. She took a part-time state position to conduct radioactivity sampling in the area, in part to take control of her own fears about the plant.

The lesson, Morrison advised the crowd, remains relevant.

“Don't become too paranoid without facts,” she cautioned. “Because there's a lot of stuff out there that isn't fact.”

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