Shumlin administration backs off large fee increase for Vermont Yankee

The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation appears to be backing off from a proposal to increase a fee on the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant for thermal discharge by more than 400 percent between 2012 and 2013.

The original proposal, floated in the House Committee on Ways and Means, would lift the dollar cap on the amount the plant would have to pay to discharge heated water into the Connecticut River.

But in that committee last week David Mears, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said the state should take a more conservative approach.

“I’ve heard the concerns that the cost as long as it rises to five hundred thousand or so is too untethered from the actual cost of the permit program,” Mears said.

Under the original proposal, Vermont Yankee’s fee would rise from $105,000 to $543,000.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has defended the hike as a matter of fairness.

Shumlin told reporters at a recent press conference that larger dischargers like Vermont Yankee pay a lower rate than smaller ones for a Clean Water Act permit. Other users pay on a per-gallon basis, and Entergy uses hundreds of millions of gallons of water each year.

Mears told lawmakers last week, however, that Yankee’s permit likely would be subject to a legal challenge.

Instead of lifting the cap, Mears proposed doubling it from $105,000 to $210,000.

The commissioner declined to go into the details of why the increased fee might not pass legal muster.

One concern, he said, was that the fee would be so steep it would generate more money than would be necessary to fund the permit program.

“It’s clear that the high level of the fee associated with the discharge is such that it would be generating funding that is not tied to that program,” Mears said.

Vermont Yankee’s thermal discharge has been both a politically and environmentally-charged issue for years.

Beginning in 1978, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources issued a series of permit amendments that allowed the facility to bypass its cooling towers and discharge heated water into the river. The Connecticut River Watershed Council and other groups challenged Vermont Yankee’s 2006 permit but lost in the state supreme court.

In February, the group released two reports that it claims refute Entergy’s basis for justifying its thermal discharges.

The proposed increase in the fee for the permit came amid multiple legal battles between the state and Entergy.

Both parties are appealing a federal district court decision that found Vermont laws requiring legislative approval in the relicensing process were pre-empted by the Atomic Energy Act. This week, parties to the Public Service Board docket regarding the plant are filing briefs and attending a status conference. And in a separate lawsuit in the D.C. Court of Appeals, the state and the New England Coalition are challenging the license issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to permit the facility to continue operating because Entergy never received water quality certification from the state.

Rep. Carolyn Branagan, R-Franklin, questioned Mears on whether the state should be changing the landscape of the state’s relationship with Vermont Yankee while all of the litigation is taking place.

“I don’t think we should be treading here at all,” Branagan said in committee last week.

Mears responded that the department has an obligation to act on the pending permit decision, and it could be years before the legal issues between the state and Entergy are resolved.

Mears said the $210,000 was a reasonable estimate for the cost of developing and defending the permit.

As for the breakdown of how much money would go into the issuing versus defending the permit, Mears wouldn’t say.

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