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February 04, 2010

Entergy Assembles Lobbying Teams to Rebuild Vermonters' Trust

VY Entergy announced late Wednesday that it has assembled a team of its top government affairs and communications specialists to assuage concerns of Vermont officials and rebuild trust.

The move comes one day after Entergy placed a top official — Jay Thayer — on administrative leave. Thayer was one of several Entergy Vermont Yankee officials who lied to regulators and a special legislative oversight panel about the existence of underground pipes. Those pipes may be the source of an ongoing tritium leak at Vermont Yankee.

It's a sign that Entergy is in damage-control mode by placing some of its top lobbyists and corporate communicators in Vermont to answer increasingly tough questions about its business practices in Vermont.

In recent weeks, not only has tritium been found to be leaking — heavily in some areas — at the plant, but Entergy officials admitted they lied to regulators under oath, as well as a special legislative panel, about the existence of underground pipes that carry radionuclides.

In the past two days, Entergy has reported tritium levels in one test well at more than 80,000 picocuries per liter and more than 32,000 in another well. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's allowable tritium level for drinking water is 20,000 picocuries. In Europe, it's 2000 picocuries.

"In response to numerous concerns and issues that have been raised by Governor [Jim] Douglas, Vermont Department of Public Service Commissioner [David] O’Brien, state and federal legislative leaders and the public at large, Entergy Corporation has pledged to place the highest priority on restoring trust with Vermonters," the company said in a statement.

According to Entergy, a top official who reports directly to J. Wayne Leonard, Entergy’s chairman and chief executive officer, will lead a special team designed to assuage the concerns of the public, as well as legislators and regulatory officials.

Separate teams are trying to get to the bottom of what is causing sizable tritium leaks and why Entergy officials lied to the public and regulators about the existence of underground pipes.

A leading critic of Vermont Yankee said it's too little too late for the Louisiana-based power company.

"Bringing in the suits is like the British sending in the Redcoats to manipulate those pesky Vermont revolutionaries," said Bob Stannard, a lobbyist who represents the Citizens Action Network. The group is opposed to Vermont Yankee's relicensure, and wants the plant shut down as originally planned in 2012.

"When a snake sheds its skin it`s still a snake," Stannard added.

Curt L. Hébert Jr., a past chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, has been designated to lead a team of Entergy specialists addressing Vermont Yankee matters — i.e., meeting with regulators and lawmakers. Hébert serves as Entergy’s executive vice president for external affairs. In layman's terms, it means he's Entergy's top in-house lobbyist.

“This situation needs to be fixed, and through Curt’s leadership and direct engagement with Vermont leaders, I have every confidence it will be fixed as quickly as possible," said Leonard in a statement. "We must and will do better. Entergy’s own standards, and our duty to Vermonters, demand it.”

Despite Leonard's claims that Entergy is losing money on Vermont Yankee, Hébert said Entergy wants to see the plant relicensed.

“Entergy values and deeply respects our relationship with the state of Vermont and its business community, and we are committed to Vermont for the long term," said Hébert. "Since buying the plant in 2002 we have made more than $190 million in long-term investments at Vermont Yankee to make it a world-class nuclear facility.”

A spokesman for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which also opposes VY's relicensure, said there is little Entergy can do to improve VY's physical plant.

"No corporate shake-up or new executive brought to Vermont from Louisiana is going to make VY any younger. That is their problem," said James Moore, VPIRG's clean-energy advocate.

According to Entergy officials, the team has already begun to meet with public, business, labor and civic leaders in Vermont.

In addition, two Entergy officials with longtime ties to Vermont will see their roles expanded. They are Brian Cosgrove, who will manage government relations, and Larry Smith, who will coordinate communications and media relations.

Cosgrove was an integral part of Entergy Vermont Yankee's Statehouse team that helped the company get a special license to boost power at the aging reactor to 120 percent of its original capacity, and secure additional dry-cask storage of spent fuel along the banks of the Connecticut River.

Also rejoining VY's lobbying efforts is Gerry Morris, a private lobbyist who had been VY's long-time face in committee rooms in Montpelier. Entergy switched lobbying firms last year and hired a team from MacLean, Meehan and Rice. But, as of late Tuesday, Morris has VY as a client again.

Additional members of the Hébert-led team include: Arthur Wiese, Entergy Corporation’s vice president for corporate communications; Kenneth Theobalds, vice president for government relations for Entergy’s northeastern nuclear operations; Donald Vinci, vice president of business development for Entergy Nuclear; James Steets, vice president for northeastern nuclear communications; and Allison Graves, director of federal energy policy.

The work of the specialized team dedicated to the company’s interaction with Vermont officials is concurrent with Entergy’s ongoing investigation to identify the source of the elevated tritium concentrations in monitoring wells. That probe is being overseen by Entergy Nuclear senior management, including Michael Balduzzi, senior vice president and chief operating officer, and Timothy Mitchell, senior vice president for engineering and technical services.

“We are placing the highest priority on finding the cause of the tritium and remediating any contamination.  At the same time, we must reconcile the conflicting statements made to the Department of Public Service," said Hébert. "To this end, we have engaged the services of an independent, outside law firm to fully investigate the matter and, most importantly, to make sure it does not happen again.”

They may not want it to happen again, but as I noted in "Fair Game" just two weeks ago: It likely will happen again. Wash, spin, rinse and repeat.

"Entergy Corporation has pledged to place the highest priority on restoring trust with Vermonters," the company said in a statement.

How about placing the highest priority on FIXING THE LEAK!

really speaks volumes about the strategies of corporate America.

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