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January 19, 2012

Statehouse Reacts to Vermont Yankee Ruling

DSC01647Bob Stannard was standing in the Statehouse cafeteria Thursday when his phone rang. It was Gov. Peter Shumlin, calling to tell him that a federal judge had finally ruled on Vermont Yankee's lawsuit against the state. Entergy, owner of the nuclear power plant Stannard had lobbied to shut down for five years, had won. The state had lost.

"I haven't had a chance to read this tome," said Stannard (pictured), glancing over the 102-page decision on his iPhone. "It appears we'll get nothing from Entergy except radiation and spent fuel. We get stuck with their waste."

News spread quicky through the capitol Thursday afternoon after federal Judge J. Garvan Murtha ruled that the 40-year-old nuclear reactor can remain open past 2012, and that the Vermont Legislature pre-empted federal authority when it voted to shut the plant down two years ago. Stannard fought to close the plant for five years as the lobbyist for the Vermont Citizens Action Network. He witnessed a major milestone in 2010 when the Vermont Senate, led by then-Senate President Peter Shumlin, voted 26 to 4 against letting state regulators hear the plant's petition for a 20-year license extension.

At the time, a series of radioactive leaks and false statements by company officials had Entergy on the run. But Entergy sued the state, contending that federal agencies, not states, had sole authority to regulate nuclear power. When Thursday's ruling arrived in favor of Vermont Yankee, Stannard and other Statehouse denizens seemed disappointed, but hardly surprised.

As many anticipated, Murtha's ruling will send the question of relicensing the Vernon nuclear plant back to the Vermont Public Service Board, the trio of appointed utility experts who will decide whether to issue VY a "certificate of public good," or state license to operate. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already granted the plant a 20-year license extension.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, who was en route to Park City, Utah to attend the Outdoor Industry Association Retailer Winter Market, released a statement condemning the ruling and Vermont Yankee.

"I am very disappointed in today’s ruling from the federal court," the governor's statement said. "Entergy has not been a trustworthy partner with the state of Vermont. Vermont Yankee needed legislative approval 40 years ago. The plant received approval to operate until March, 2012. I continue to believe that it is in Vermont's best interest to retire the plant. I will await the Attorney General’s review of the decision to comment further on whether the state will appeal."

The union representing hundreds of Vermont Yankee employees hailed the court's ruling, stating that it "rings for truth and justice throughout Vermont.

"The bells are ringing in Windam County tonight," Jeffery Wimette, business manager for IBEW Local 300, said in a statement. "Hundreds of hard working, skilled and dedicated employees are now able to continue working and keep their jobs to provide for their families. The IBEW Local 300 and other highly skilled employees who work at Vermont Yankee place the highest emphasis on safety to ensure the facility is safe for all who work and live in the area. If members of the IBEW had any doubt about VT Yankee’s safety, they would be the first to blow the whistle. I congratulate the employees of VT Yankee for standing tall and keeping their faith over the past two years. The law has prevailed, not the law makers.”  

DSC01651In his small office, Senate President John Campbell (D-Windsor), a lawyer by day, pored over the lengthy ruling on his desktop computer. Later, Campbell and House Speaker Shap Smith spoke to reporters outside the speaker's office. Both leaders said they were still digesting the ruling.

Smith stressed that the state will continue to retain "other areas of jurisdiction outside of the public service board" over the plant, but he and Campbell said it's too early to say exactly how the Legislature might use regulations or taxes to affect the plant's future.

"Any decision made in haste will not benefit the state," Campbell said.

Smith said that he is personally disappointed in the ruling but said he has "a lot of faith in our Department of Public Service and our Public Service Board to consider the interests of Vermonters and come to a good decision."

Do the leaders view it as a blow against states' rights?

"There are some concerns about whether states' rights have been constricted," Smith offered. "I am disappointed by the decision but I appreciate the state continues to have a voice through the Public Service Board."

Campbell went further. "I think it is a deterioration of states' rights," he said. "I can't help but think there are going to be many Vermonters out there who cannot understand why their state leaders, their state legislature, is unable to voice concerns they may have."

Asked whether he thought the state should appeal the ruling, Smith said he would leave that to the governor's staff and the attorney general's office.

State Rep. Tony Klein (D-East Montpelier), a Vermont Yankee critic who chairs the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, called the ruling a "clear example of the power that corporate America has over the people of this country.

"It's a sad day for state's rights and a sad day for America," Klein said. "This is almost like corporate personhood. They tell you you have the right to give birth to a plant in your state. The state legislature has to give permission for a plant to be built. But now it seems they are closing down any avenue for the end of the life of that plant, even when its contract period expires."

Click here to download the ruling.

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