VY sale review will take longer

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VERNON — The state's review of the proposed Vermont Yankee sale will take months longer than originally anticipated.

A revised schedule issued Monday by the Vermont Public Utility Commission shows that a second public hearing on the plant sale has been pushed to January, four months later than initially had been planned.

And it appears that the commission's review process could extend well beyond that, with technical hearings scheduled for late January in Montpelier and additional filings due at an undetermined, later date.

But there appears to be no objections to the new schedule. And a spokesman said the delays don't impact Entergy's hope to sell the idled Vernon nuclear plant to New York-based NorthStar Group Services by the end of 2018.

"This revised schedule continues to support the timing of the proposed transaction between Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee and NorthStar," said Joe Lynch, an Entergy senior government affairs manager.

Entergy administrators, who stopped power production at Vermont Yankee in December 2014, announced last November that they had a tentative deal for NorthStar to acquire the plant, its spent fuel and its decommissioning trust fund.

NorthStar has pledged to clean up most of the site no later than 2030, which is decades faster than Entergy had been planning. Both the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the state Public Utility Commission - formerly called the Public Service Board - must sign off on the change of ownership.

The state's review was expected to be lengthy. And a schedule released in February confirmed that, as proceedings were scheduled through late 2017.

But that schedule now has changed significantly. And those involved in the sale say that's because of the time needed for discovery, in which state agencies and other entities have asked detailed questions about the new Vermont Yankee decommissioning plan.

"The schedule has been revised in response to the discovery process extending out beyond initial expectations," said Stephanie Hoffman, special counsel for the state Public Service Department. "All of the dates in the schedule were moved to account for a nearly three-month discovery production period by (Entergy and NorthStar) that concluded last week."

In particular, the number and nature of documents that the two companies deemed "confidential" seems to have slowed down the process. In fact, there were two levels of confidentiality granted due to NorthStar's concerns about publicly disclosing proprietary information.

In addition to confidentiality issues, Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany also pointed to "the time necessary to process the sheer volume of information being presented."

Campany believes the state's initial schedule for reviewing the Vermont Yankee sale may have been "ambitious from the outset."

In early May, the Public Service Department threw up a stop sign by requesting an extension to file additional discovery requests in the Yankee case. The department said it needed more time to review Entergy/NorthStar documents that initially had been withheld due to confidentiality issues.

Later that month, the utility commission agreed with that request and also suspended the case's entire schedule pending revisions.

Last week, Entergy and NorthStar jointly proposed a new, more lengthy schedule "after reaching a consensus with the (Public Service Department) and other parties," Lynch said.

That led to Monday's order from the commission.

Along with setting new deadlines for depositions, discovery requests and rebuttals, the commission tentatively set a public hearing for Jan. 4 in Vernon. That date depends on the availability of a meeting space.

That hearing - which would be the second in the commission's review process - originally had been set for Sept. 5 or 6. The first hearing, held in April, drew a big crowd with many questions about the Vermont Yankee sale.

Both Hoffman and Campany said the timing of the second hearing is important, since it would take place after the submission of all evidence in the Vermont Yankee case but prior to technical hearings.

That timing, they said, has been preserved in the commission's new schedule.

"The idea is that this information will inform the public and the issues and questions that they bring to the public hearing, which can in turn inform lines of questioning by the parties as well as the Public Utility Commission," Campany said. "Those lines of questioning can also influence what evidence is entered into the record during the technical hearings."

Mike Faher reports for the Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.

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