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Vermont Yankee

Nuke plant’s river discharge issue heats up anew

The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon, Vt., will begin shutting down this year, but the terms of the plant’s closure and how it will be paid for are not yet set.
Paul Franz/Birds EyeViews photo

The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon, Vt., will begin shutting down this year, but the terms of the plant’s closure and how it will be paid for are not yet set. Paul Franz/Birds EyeViews photo

MONTPELIER — The honeymoon between Entergy Nuclear and the Shumlin administration appears to be over.

Disagreements between Entergy Nuclear and the Agency of Natural Resources surfaced last week in an exchange of letters over the proposed draft permit for Vermont Yankee’s continuing warm water discharge into the Connecticut River. Entergy wants permission to increase the temperature of the river by up to 13.4 degrees.

But Deb Markowitz, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, downplayed the disagreement by calling it a “conversation” rather than a disagreement.

“We’re having a conversation with Entergy,” she said.

At the heart of the issue is whether Vermont Yankee will be forced to use its cooling towers and not discharge the 523 million gallons of warmed cooling water into the Connecticut, and in the process lose millions of dollars in revenue. The change could even force Yankee to cut power production during the height of the summer.

The issue of river discharge and the state permit was not included in the far-ranging settlement agreement, including an agreement to drop all litigation, between Entergy and the Shumlin administration over Yankee’s shutdown later this year.

Environmentalists have long maintained that the hot water discharge from Yankee was hurting the fish and their habitat in the river. On Wednesday, the Connecticut River Watershed Council said that Entergy was violating conditions of its old 2001 permit.

“Here we go again,” said Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, who works for the council as a Connecticut River steward and has been involved in the thermal discharge issue for several years.

Deen, chairman of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, said Entergy was already threatening to sue over the warm water discharge permit.

Deen said that filings with the Vermont Public Service Board showed that Yankee’s discharge exceeded its permit 75 percent of the time during critical spring and fall American shad migration.

In a letter dated March 28, Kelli Dowell, assistant general counsel for Entergy Nuclear, claimed that the draft permit under discussion would in essence force Vermont Yankee to operate in closed cycle for the remainder of 2014. The Vermont Public Service Board granted Entergy a state certificate of public good on March 28.

“We are concerned that Vermont Yankee cannot be operated in a manner that will comply with the proposed thermal limits,” she wrote. “Although Entergy is committed to work with the Agency of Natural Resources, we believe the permit should remain unchanged for the remainder of this year.”

Dowell’s letter to Jon Groveman, general counsel for the state agency, said that “all technical experts agree that the draft VANR permit indeed will result in closed cycle cooling for the remainder of 2014 and that it will significantly increase the biological monitoring program beyond what has been performed for the past several decades.”

Entergy Nuclear spokesman Robert Williams said the company declined to further comment on the draft permit issue.

Groveman, in a letter dated Tuesday, wrote that the Vermont Yankee Environmental Advisory Committee, which is made up of environmental officials from the states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, had reviewed the scientific studies and recommended a closed cycle operation during key fish movement and spawning periods.

Groveman wrote that the recommendations in the draft permit were “necessary to assure compliance with the Vermont Water Quality Standards and the Clean Water Act.

“If the VY Station were going to operate for an additional 18 years, this evidence might cause us to conclude that Entergy VY had not met its obligation to demonstrate that the discharge would not adversely affect the water quality,” Groveman wrote to Dowell.

Markowitz said that the draft National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, as it is formally known, was still being fine-tuned, and hadn’t been released, where it will be subject to public hearing before being finalized.

At the same time, Markowitz noted that Vermont Yankee is slated to shut down in December, making the permit less important than if the plant was operating for another 18 years as originally planned.

The permit has long been expired — it expired in 2006 — and Entergy has been operating Yankee and discharging into the river under its old permit, while waiting for the state to issue a new one.

Markowitz said the permit problems predated the Shumlin administration, and it was further delayed by federal litigation on what should be the correct standard.

Markowitz said that the state wanted to do a thorough, science-based approach to the permit, since the issue is being closely watched by other nuclear power plants.

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