VERNON – For Rich Holschuh, the Vermont Yankee property is rife with contradictions.
On one hand, it’s an idled, contaminated nuclear plant in need of the biggest environmental cleanup project Vermont has ever seen.
On the other, it’s part of the ancestral homeland of the Elnu Abenaki, the Native American tribe Holschuh is representing in the state’s regulatory review of Vermont Yankee’s proposed sale to a New York cleanup company.
Now, those two versions of the site may be edging a little closer together. The plant’s potential buyer, NorthStar Group Services, has agreed to talks with the Abenaki in an effort to address the tribe’s worries about excavation, cleanup and site restoration.
“We want to meet with them,” NorthStar Chief Executive Officer Scott State said. “We want to understand their concerns, and we want to come to an understanding as to how we can meet their concerns.”
It’s not clear what the outcome of those talks will be, but Holschuh said the fact they’re occurring is a victory of sorts.
“We’re trying to establish our voice – just be acknowledged for being here and caring,” Holschuh said. “We want to be involved, and we actually see this as a responsibility.”
Entergy stopped producing power at Vermont Yankee at the end of 2014 and is seeking to sell the Vernon plant to NorthStar by the end of next year. NorthStar has promised to clean up most of the site by 2030, whereas Entergy’s cleanup plan could have stretched to 2075.
The sale and accelerated decommissioning proposal is under review by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Vermont Public Utility Commission.
Two Abenaki tribes are participating in the state’s review with what’s called intervenor status, and Holschuh recently filed detailed testimony on behalf of the Windham County-based Elnu Abenaki. Holschuh, a Brattleboro resident and member of the Vermont Commission for Native American Affairs, is serving as a public liaison for the tribe.
There’s been a large volume of paperwork filed in the Vermont Yankee sale review, much of it dealing with the technical aspects of site cleanup. But Holschuh, a Native American activist and researcher, takes a different approach by detailing the history and cultural importance of the plant property.
Even today, Holschuh argues, the Abenaki and this relatively small parcel of land along the Connecticut River are inextricably connected.
“It is a critical understanding that, as an indigenous population, the people understand themselves to be one inseparable entity with the landscape and with all of its other presences,” he wrote.
Holschuh’s testimony discusses the Abenaki’s history of living off the land in the area of the river’s “Great Bend.” It was an “ancient fishing ground” and agricultural area, he wrote, and Governor Hunt Road follows a long-ago trail connecting native settlement areas.
Across the river in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, the Abenaki maintained a “palisaded village” meant to defend against attack by the Iroquois, Holschuh says.
But the land was transformed by European settlement and subsequent industrialization. The century-old Vernon hydroelectric dam flooded hundreds of acres, and Vermont Yankee began operating in 1972 on roughly 123 acres just upstream.
Holschuh sees the nuclear plant as a “great incongruity” that “must and can be reckoned with … in the best manner possible” with the interests of indigenous people in mind.
By his estimation, that hasn’t happened at all up to this point. “The cultural significance of this site has never been fully acknowledged, although its great potential is conceded,” Holschuh wrote.
He cites a 2007 NRC report, which notes that “no formal archeological survey was conducted at the (Vermont Yankee) site prior to initial construction.” The commission added that “there is potential for intact archeological deposits within the undeveloped areas” of the property.
With decommissioning – and large amounts of excavation – possibly imminent at Vermont Yankee, the Elnu Abenaki are requesting a “comprehensive memorandum of agreement … prioritizing cultural resource awareness and incorporating traditional sensitivities.”
The tribe wants policies for oversight of “all earth-disturbing activities, with regular direct consultation and reporting.” It’s also asking for involvement in determining the Vermont Yankee property’s site restoration standards.
Holschuh said he was surprised, just a few days after filing the Abenaki testimony, to get a call from NorthStar requesting a meeting to discuss the tribe’s concerns.
State said NorthStar, which has been characterized as the nation’s largest remediation and demolition company, deals with cultural and historical questions on a regular basis.
“Cultural impacts are always important whenever you’re digging,” he said.
State said NorthStar may not be excavating as much of the Vermont Yankee site as the tribe has suggested. “We in fact are going to impact the land much less than it was impacted when the site was built,” he said.
Nevertheless, State said he wants to find a way to accommodate the Abenaki’s issues as much as possible. “This is something we see as our obligation,” State said.
However, he cautioned that “there’s a balance that has to be found there” – meaning a balance between historical concerns and the demands of getting an accelerated decommissioning job done on time and on budget.
Holschuh concedes that point, but he believes there is inherent value in sitting down with NorthStar and in participating in the state regulatory process.
“Going forward, we would like to be included,” he said. “That’s not asking too much.”
One area where there could be disagreement is site redevelopment.
The Elnu Abenaki testimony says it “would be best to let the land lie at rest and allow it to heal as much as possible.” But that may be a nonstarter for NorthStar and local residents who want to see some kind of commercial or industrial redevelopment at Vermont Yankee.
Holschuh said he understood such sentiments. “I think we’re taking it a step at a time,” he said.