Friday, July 6, 2012

Vermont Loses Lawsuit Against NRC about Water Quality Permit

The Intervenors (and Vermont) Sue the NRC and Lose

The New England Coalition (NEC) is an intervenor that has fought Vermont Yankee since before the plant opened.  About a year ago, NEC brought a lawsuit against the NRC.  NEC claimed  that the NRC should not have granted Vermont Yankee a license extension because the plant did not have an up-to-date water quality permit issued by the state. They claimed that Vermont Yankee's NRC license was invalid, and had to be rescinded.

Late last month, NEC lost the lawsuit.  The U.S Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. ruled against NEC and for the NRC.  You can read the ruling here.

Liz Miller
DPS Commissioner
Oops!  Did I say NEC lost the suit?  What I meant was that the Vermont Department of Public Service  (DPS) and NEC lost the suit, because Vermont joined the suit.  DPS joined the suit big-time.  Liz Miller, the DPS Commissioner, argued the case before the Court.

The State's Case and My Opinion

I found the state's case quite odd. I wrote an blog post last year -- A State of Confusion: The Suit about the Water Quality Permit.  As I said at the time: the state is the one that issues water quality permits.  If the plant's water quality permit was not up to the state's requirements, the state should have insisted that the plant do something about this.  Instead, the state sued the NRC, saying the NRC should not have issued the license extension.

In other words, Vermont claimed that Vermont hadn't cared about the water quality permit status, but the NRC should have cared.  My guess was this argument wouldn't convince a court.

It didn't.

The Court's Opinion

The court ruling was related to what I had expected, but different.  The appeals court ruled that the state had an obligation to bring up this contention before the NRC during the hearing, not wait until the license was granted and come in with an "oh, by the way" lawsuit.  To quote the ruling:

“.. petitioners here were required under agency regulations to afford the full Commission an opportunity to pass on the section 401 issue before seeking judicial review. And they had repeated opportunities to do so...[they] sat silent for two and one-half years thereafter, raising their... objection only after the Commission issued the license renewal in March 2011.”

The Opponents' Opinions

Many of the opponents cried bitter tears that the NRC had escaped on a procedural technicality.

According to VPR, a NEC spokesman, Chris Killen, said: "The New England Coalition, and all Vermonters, have now been deprived of the right that was guaranteed to them by Congress, to have a say in how this plant affects clean water." According to the same article, Shumlin's spokesman  John Being said "We're disappointed that the court declined to address our substantive water quality argument and instead ruled, based upon kind of a technical issue, a procedural issue,"

Pat Parentau
Vermont Law School
However, in the same VPR article, Pat Parentau of Vermont Law School said the court ruled on a fundamental point of administrative law.

"Where there's a clear process to raise an issue, before the commission - that‘s the key - before the commission itself - that you can't miss that opportunity and expect the circuit court to hear your argument," he said.

Pat Parentau would like to see Vermont Yankee shut down, but he knows this ruling was not procedural nit-picking.

The Next Step

Of course, Vermont claims it is considering an appeal to the Supreme Court.  Vermont always wants to take it all the way to the Supreme Court. (Take It To the Limit.)  However, most people admit that this ruling is the final ruling. The Supreme Court won't hear the case. The Supreme Court rarely reviews rulings that are made on the basis of administrative law.  So the next step is---this ruling will stand.

It's funny how often Vermont gets tripped up by the Constitution or by customary administrative law requirements, or other stuff like that. It's almost as if our administration doesn't think things through. (sarcasm alert)

Oh By The Way

Let's talk "substantive issues" here for a moment.

First issue.  Vermont Water Quality Reviews are On-Going: The Agency of Natural Resources (ANR)  has been working on a water quality permit with Vermont Yankee since 2006.  To quote a Brattleboro Reformer article on the lawsuit: ANR is still in the process of determining whether Yankee should receive a permit to discharge non-radioactive cooling water -- at up to 100 degrees -- into the Connecticut River. That process has been going on since 2006 and is not expected to be resolved anytime too soon.  In other words, what the heck was this Vermont lawsuit about?

Second issue. Why Is the Department of Public Service doing this?  The Department of Public Service is supposed to be protecting the rate-payer in hearings before the Public Service Board, not running down to Washington to join intervenor lawsuits.  However, as I said in my blog post: Gaz Metro Deal Goes Forward. Ratepayers Stiffed. the DPS is not defending the ratepayer.  The DPS is just another one of the ducks that Governor Shumlin gets in order.

No comments: