Published April 30, 2009 in the Times Argus
Tara Gita of Calais, left, has a bandage applied by Elinor Yahm of Montpelier for a mock injury at Wednesday's anti-nuclear rally.
Photo: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
Activists stage anti-nuclear rally
MONTPELIER - As more than 150 anti-nuclear activists rallied outside the Statehouse on Wednesday, a Senate committee passed a major renewable energy bill that plans for a future without the Vermont Yankee power plant.
Wednesday's rally was part politics and part theater as activists divided the Statehouse lawn into two areas: one representing the state's possible renewable energy future, and the other showing the potential fallout from a nuclear disaster.
Protesters wore hazmat suits and other protective gear as they set up a small tent city and posted signs warning that a disaster area was ahead.
House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, told the crowd that lawmakers were dedicated to passing a major renewable energy bill this year that would provide incentives to create a wealth of small hydro, solar and wind projects.
"We are ensuring that renewable energy is on equal footing with the other sources of power," Smith said to a roar of approval from the crowd.
Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, told the protesters that the bill would force Entergy Vermont Nuclear, the owner of the Vernon plant, to fulfill its promise to shut down in 2012 and return the land below the plant to a green field.
"None of the promises have been kept," Shumlin said. "And Vermont is a place where we keep our promises."
Representatives of Entergy Vermont Nuclear had no comment on the rally Wednesday
Wednesday's protest, organized by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, comes a little more than a week before the Vermont Legislature is scheduled to adjourn for the year.
There are several major energy bills still pending before lawmakers, including one that would force the owner of Vermont Yankee to put hundreds of millions of dollars into its decommissioning fund.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee approved a House bill that loosens state regulations for small-scale renewable energy projects and sets up a fixed rate and contracts with the electrical utilities to buy that energy.
"After tri-partisan support in the House, the renewable energy bill met strong support in the Senate," said James Moore, the clean energy advocate for VPIRG. "This is a bill that ensures Vermont is part of the clean energy future. It's terrific."
Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, the chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said the proposal - which faces a likely veto from Gov. James Douglas over concerns that it will increase electricity bills - provides the incentives and security for Vermont to take advantage of the green energy economy.
Members of the House committee released a document Wednesday showing the names of 75 Vermont companies that were hired to help construct methane digesters at four locations in the state to demonstrate how investing in similar projects will stimulate the economy.
"We're calling this an economic stimulus bill for a reason," said Rep. Margaret Cheney, D-Norwich, a member of the committee. "If we saw this many companies benefit from the methane digesters, then imagine what will happen when we invest in other renewables."
Dozens of signs at the Statehouse rally focused on fears that a major accident at Vermont Yankee would leave the southern part of the state uninhabitable for residents.
And protesters buzzed about rumors that school bus drivers who are charged with moving residents out of the affected area were no longer carrying their emergency pagers supplied by the state of Vermont.
That's true, said Nicole Jones, a spokesperson for the company First Student, which purchased portions of the Laidlaw Bus Co. in late 2007. She said school bus drivers don't have a new contract yet with Vermont officials regarding the use of the pagers - and they won't carry them until they do.
Jones said all the bus drivers do have two-way radios in their vehicles, so if there was an emergency, they could still be contacted to respond.
"If there was an incident, the bus drivers would still show up," Jones said. "But right now a contract doesn't exist, although we look forward to negotiating a new contract."
Barbara Farr, the director of Vermont Emergency Management, said Wednesday that she first heard about this issue a day earlier when a reporter called her. She said her office is looking into the issue, but stressed that the pager system was not the only way to contact the bus drivers.
"Pagers are not the be all and end all," Farr said. "But we are trying to track down what happened."
Ed Anthes, a member of the group Nuclear Free Vermont, said that if local parents don't have faith in the evacuation plan, they will pick up their kids from local schools themselves during an emergency.
"It's amazing that just a few years after we were told that the pager system was in place we learn that the bus drivers aren't using the pagers," Anthes said. "This is just another flaw in the evacuation plans down here."
Contact Daniel Barlow at Daniel.Barlow@timesargus.com.