'A leading voice among the anti-nuclear forces': New Public Service Board chairman won't hear Yankee case

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BRATTLEBORO — The state Public Service Board's new chairman won't be involved in one of its biggest pending cases — the proposed sale of Vermont Yankee.

A memo filed Wednesday informed those involved in the sale docket that Anthony Roisman "will not participate in this matter as chairman," leaving the other two board members to decide the case. The one-paragraph document doesn't give a reason for Roisman's recusal, and he didn't comment further.

But Roisman has a long history of anti-nuclear legal work and, over the past two years, he earned more than $30,000 as a contracted attorney for the state on Vermont Yankee issues.

Vermont Yankee owner Entergy declined to comment on Roisman's decision. And Scott State, chief executive officer of proposed plant buyer NorthStar Group Services, said the recusal didn't change his view of the Public Service Board process.

"We understand that's the decision that's been made and we're fully supportive of the state process and confident that the two remaining members will be able to make this decision," State said.

Entergy wants to sell the dormant Vernon nuclear plant to NorthStar by the end of next year, though the deal first requires approvals from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the state Public Service Board.

NorthStar says it can decommission and restore most of the Vermont Yankee site by 2030, decades faster than Entergy had planned. But skeptics are concerned about the company's ability to fulfill its promises. Many of those doubts emerged at an April Public Service Board hearing in Vernon, where board members Margaret Cheney and Sarah Hofmann presided. Then-Chairman Jim Volz was absent, though Volz had been involved in earlier proceedings in the case.

Volz's term has since expired, and Gov. Phil Scott on June 1 named Roisman to replace him. Nevertheless, had the Vermont Yankee sale review been farther along, Volz might have been required to stick with it. State statute governing the Public Service Board says that, "when a board member who hears all or a substantial part of a case retires from office before such case is completed, he or she shall remain a member of the board for the purpose of concluding and deciding such case."

In this instance, however, officials determined that "the board has not heard a substantial part" of the Vermont Yankee case, said Holly Anderson, the board's deputy clerk. So Volz was able to exit, with Roisman theoretically taking his place.

In some ways, Roisman might be considered a perfect fit for the complex Vermont Yankee case. The attorney has been involved in state and national energy issues for more than 50 years, including a stint as senior staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Scott has said Roisman's lengthy experience "will serve Vermont well as we navigate the transition to a cleaner and more affordable energy future."

But the Weathersfield resident also has a long track record of fighting against nuclear power, or at least representing nuclear regulators.

His Vermont Yankee advocacy stretches back to the 1970s, when Roisman represented the anti-nuclear New England Coalition in its fight against the Vernon plant. Online congressional documents also say Roisman was involved in opposing New York's Indian Point plant and other nuclear facilities. In fact, Roisman was at the forefront of such efforts. In his 2004 book "Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective," author J. Samuel Walker wrote that Roisman "made a name for himself" by representing groups seeking expanded environmental review of two nuclear plants being built on Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

Roisman subsequently secured a "milestone" court victory in 1971, with implications for all nuclear plants under development.

"The Calvert Cliffs decision established Roisman as a leading voice among the anti-nuclear forces," Walker wrote.

More recently, Roisman was contracted in 2015 by the Vermont Public Service Department for "legal services related to post-shutdown, decommissioning and spent fuel management and storage activities" at Vermont Yankee.

The state has clashed often with Entergy and the NRC on such issues, and those disputes have required extensive legal work. The initial maximum cost estimate for Roisman's contract was $100,000, documents show. Roisman actually earned much less than that. The state paid him $30,758 between May 2015 and May 2017, said Louise Porter, a special counsel in the Public Service Department commissioner's office.

The state was considering extending Roisman's Vermont Yankee contract when he was named chairman of the Public Service Board. At that point, the contract was canceled and no additional amounts were billed or paid, Porter said.

It's not clear whether Roisman's nuclear work led to his recusal from the Vermont Yankee sale review. He did not return a phone call requesting comment, and Public Service Board Clerk Judy Whitney said it's "not the board's practice to explain the basis for an individual member's decision on whether that member should not hear a particular case."

"This is consistent with the approach that courts use," Whitney said.

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

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