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The"L" Word 

Fair Game

The word "leadership" is being tossed around almost as much as "maverick" and "hope" and "terrorist" this election season.

We'll hear the "L" word plenty this week, thanks to a new TV ad attacking Republican Gov. Jim Douglas by Democracy for America.

Last week, DFA announced it was backing Democrat Gaye Symington in the race for governor. No shock, since the DFA was founded by former Gov. Howard Dean and is now run by his brother Jim Dean.

Still, Independent Anthony Pollina has been stealing some of Symington's shine in terms of endorsements and debate performance, and he had been hoping for DFA's backing.

While union endorsements may yield Pollina much-needed staff support, the impact of DFA's backing of Symington came quick and where it counts: TV advertising and pushback - both areas in which Symington is lagging behind Douglas.

The ad, called "Failure of Leadership," claims the governor has put Vermonters at risk by being too easy on Vermont Yankee and its owner, Entergy.

"As problems at Vermont Yankee grow in frequency and severity," DFA's Adam Quinn said, "Douglas has failed to lead on real accountability and strong government oversight for six years."

The ad shows dramatic photos of a transformer fire and the cooling tower collapse at VY, along with this Douglas quote from a story in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus: "I know what Vermonters want and I know what they need."

Only one problem: The quote is from a story dealing with sex-offender laws. Sex offenders, nuclear power plant owners - it's all the same when you're trying to make a political point, right? Eeesh.

However, the ad's ending is what's ruffling feathers: "Jim Douglas has sat idle as Vermont Yankee has had problem after problem. Why isn't Jim Douglas keeping you and your family from becoming the victims of the next nuclear accident?"

On screen, behind Douglas' image, are pictures of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. What, no mushroom cloud?

Dennise Casey, Douglas' campaign manager, is calling on Symington and state Democrats to force DFA to yank the ad.

Don't hold your breath. Douglas' ad chiding Symington for refusing to release her tax returns opened the door for a hard-hitting response. And for once a Democratic ally in Vermont is willing to oblige.

The VY ad comes on the heels of DFA's graphic and pointed national ad questioning why Sen. John McCain won't release his full health records. The ad is complete with up-close pictures of McCain's melanoma (not to be watched while eating or with the kids in the room).

The McCain ad aired briefly on MSNBC until Vermont's favorite FOX bloviator Bill O'Reilly called on the head honchos at NBC to yank it. The network's brass eventually obliged, but the blowup probably gave the ad more attention than it would have garnered on its own.

If nothing else, DFA is proving that it doesn't pull its punches - or, so far, its ads.

******

Decommissioning Fund Meltdown - Speaking of Vermont Yankee, the decommissioning fund set aside to dismantle the reactor site after it shuts down is losing money - and fast!

In July 2002, when Entergy bought Vermont Yankee from a group of in-state and regional utilities, the sale price included a decommissioning fund valued at $304 million (about half of that money came from Vermont ratepayers). By Dec. 31, 2006, according to Entergy's reports to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the fund was worth $416 million. A year later, it was worth $440 million.

But since then the fund has steadily tumbled, and as of June 30 was valued at $413 million.

The state Department of Public Service is concerned about the fund's downward spiral, and has asked Entergy to tell the state how much the fund was worth as of Sept. 30, according to Steve Wark, DPS spokesman. The agency should have that figure this week, Wark said.

Right now, the DPS is defending ratepayers in two separate cases before the state Public Service Board. One deals with Entergy's plan to sell off nine nuclear plants to a spin-off firm, Enexus; the other concerns Entergy's effort to extend the Vermont plant's operating license until 2032.

Remember, Douglas vetoed a plan by the Legislature to require Entergy to shore up the fund as a condition of selling the plant to Enexus. When Enexus takes over at VY, it'll be $4.5 billion in debt. That concerns lawmakers, who fear that Entergy will absolve itself of any responsibility to clean up VY and leave taxpayers to foot the bill - a tab that in today's money could reach $500 million.

The NRC, which approved the spin-off deal in August, told "Fair Game" that if there is a shortfall in the VY decommissioning fund, Entergy is on the hook.

"If we determine that the growth of the funds would be insufficient to properly decommission the plant when the time comes, we can require the company to address that," NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said.

Entergy has another option.

Company spokesman Alex Schott said that Entergy, or Enexus, can place the plant in storage (dubbed Safstor) for up to 60 years. "That would allow more time for the decommissioning funds to grow and provide a sufficient amount to decommission the plant," he said.

Yep, that's right. If VY gets its license extended until 2032, and there isn't enough cash to decommission (the cost of which could easily top $1 billion by then), the plant could be left idle until 2092 before the dismantling begins.

Decommissioning can take up to 10 years, which brings VY's final date of existence to 2102. Jobs for the 22nd century!

The possibility that VY could hang around for another 70 years will not improve Vermonters' feelings about the plant. Earlier this year, WCAX-VT polled 400 residents, and 52 percent said VY should not be relicensed; 29 percent said it should. Nineteen percent were unsure.

Entergy has to hope those numbers will change, given that lawmakers could vote this coming session on extending Entergy's license. Then again, maybe the PSB will reject it. A report prepared by a special oversight panel to inform lawmakers about the long-term reliability of VY will be in legislators' hands as early as February.

Given the multiple cooling tower collapses, the transformer fire, radiation leaks, a crane that almost dropped a cask full of fuel rods, and missing fuel rods, you can see why 24 percent of Vermonters are "very concerned" about safety at the plant, and 41 percent are "concerned," according to the WCAX-TV poll.

Fifteen percent are not very concerned.

Hmm. Give Entergy some time. I'm sure they can turn around that last group.

******

You Call This Parity? - I've written about Vermont's mental health system for more than a decade, and it puzzles me that the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury remains open.

Last week, we learned of more reasons why the 100-year-old antiquated facility should be replaced - somehow and soon.

For the third time, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services decided not to certify VSH. That means the state can't be reimbursed by the feds for some of its services. That amounts to about $4 million in FY 08, and another $3 million in FY 09. It costs $22 million a year to run VSH.

The state plans to appeal the CMS decision, said Michael Hartman, the state's mental health commissioner.

The long history of VSH is replete with trouble and tragedy. In 2003, two patients committed suicide within a month of each other. Lawmakers, the governor and citizens were outraged. VSH then lost its CMS certification, and the U.S. Department of Justice stepped in to protect patients.

The state set up a special committee to chart a new destiny for VSH, but its work was hampered by turnover within the Agency of Human Services. The agency went through three secretaries in four years, and, at one point, Commissioner Hartman's position was abolished.

For more than a decade, patient advocates have complained about poor conditions at the hospital, and the most recent CMS report found problems we've all read about before - exposed pipes and rails (used for self-harm and suicide attempts), lack of care plans, mishandling and mislabeling of medications, a lack of governance at the hospital, etc.

Despite VSH's woes, Vermont is at the vanguard of mental health parity. The state is fifth per capita in what it spends on mental health, according to the Vermont Council of Developmental and Mental Health Services. We spend $130 million on community care at 10 local mental health agencies, and the state requires insurance companies to provide the same access to mental health treatment as to other medical care.

So, what's next?

State employees say VSH should be replaced with a new hospital. By ignoring that option and opting to work with private hospitals to take VSH patients, Vermont State Employees Association Director Jes Kraus contends the state has lost $30 million, most of it in federal funding due to the lack of certification.

One advocate fears the loss of federal money could spell real trouble for Vermonters who need mental health treatment in the coming years.

"Now that the state has an additional $4 million hole in its budget come January, the pressure to divert funds from already strapped community mental health organizations will likely increase," said Ken Liebertoff, executive director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health.

That means fewer people treated until they reach a crisis point, when VSH will become their only option. Licensed to house 50 patients, the VSH census has hovered around 45 in recent weeks.

"There needs to be leadership with a capital 'L,' and soon, as it's only going to get worse," Liebertoff added. "We are at a perfect storm for a real erosion in the situation, not just a standstill."

Trust me, if these were conditions at a nursing home or community hospital, they would have been fixed years ago.

But, like so much involving mental illness, the problems seem to be out of sight, out of mind.

******

Nader's Nadir? - I joined about 400 other curious folks Sunday to hear Ralph Nader, the longtime citizen activist, speak at UVM.

Nader's hour-long speech was part college lecture, part campaign speech and part old-fashioned civics lesson. "What are the first three words in the Constitution? 'We the people,'" he said. "Not, 'we the corporations' or 'we the political parties.'"

Nader, who is again running for president, is on the ballot in Vermont and 44 other states. In 2000, he received 6.9 percent of the presidential vote with more than 20,000 votes. In 2004, he garnered only 4500 votes, or 1.4 percent.

Progressive Party hopeful Thomas Hermann, who is challenging Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, addressed the Nader crowd, as did Dan DeWalt, a Newfane selectman who helped spur 40 Vermont towns to support impeachment of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Nader endorsed Hermann and Pollina while in Vermont, and urged people to tune into politics and take active roles as citizens.

"Read history," Nader said. "When people in any society don't turn onto politics, politics turns on them, and in a very disagreeable way."

Need proof? Congress just gave us 700 billion reasons.

Got a news tip? Email Shay at shay@sevendaysvt.com

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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Bio:
Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.

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