Reflections on Big Energy’s PR Disasters

Source: The Huffington Post

As campaign season heats up in my home state of Vermont, environmentally conscious voters have been remarking on the similarity between media ads on local TV by Entergy, owner of the radiation-leaking Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, and BP, responsible for the worst environmental catastrophe in American history. Both Louisiana-based giants are trying to assure the public that the worst is past, that they are responsible corporate citizens cleaning up their respective messes, and the public has nothing to fear. But like the proverbial Pinocchio whose nose gets longer with every lie, their respective PR teams have made their mutual cover-ups even more obvious.

Consider the homey testimonial of a Vermont Yankee manager telling Vermonters how much he loves living near the Connecticut River, which runs adjacent to the aging plant where elevated levels of radioactive tritium and strontium 90 have been found in monitoring wells, in the groundwater and now, in the river itself. “The river is my home,” says site manager Russ Rusinki on camera. “I like to fish on it. I like to eat fish out of this. I like watching my daughter follow in my footsteps on this river. I have absolutely no concerns about my family living near Vermont Yankee. It’s a healthy environment. It’s a safe environment.”

I’ve been sampling responses from Vermonters. They aren’t buying it.

Remarks Mary Gagnon, a video store owner in Hardwick, Vermont: “It is one thing to say ‘I LIKE to eat fish out of this.’ It is another to actually eat the fish. Let’s see him eating the fish on a regular basis. Then we can talk.”

Even if the fish were safe to eat, Vermonters cannot feel encouraged by the news released in May by radiochemists at the University of Waterloo in Canada that baby teeth of children living near the plant show Strontium-90 concentrations 62% greater than those in the general populations of Vermont and New Hampshire children. And this comes from samples taken during the last decade, before the reports in January 2010 of known radiation leaks.

You know the saying, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Most Vermonters are no longer fooled. They know that Entergy officials were caught lying to state officials, denying that Vermont Yankee had underground pipes leaking radionuclides when, in fact, the pipes were discovered in 2010 to be the source of not only the most recent leaks, but leaks going back to 1998. Perhaps this explains why, according to The Center for Disease Control, Vermont has the highest cancer incidence rate among the young of any US state from 1999-2004. Windham County, where Vermont Yankee is located, has the highest death rate from cancer between 1999 and 2005 of any Vermont county (741 deaths). Equally significant, from 1996-2005 there was a fourfold increase in thyroid cancer in Vermont women. The Vermont Department of Health acknowledged this particularly finding as being statistically significant” given that thyroid cancers are linked to “excess radiation exposure.”

News of the radiation leaks and Entergy’s lies dominated headlines in Vermont last February and convinced the Vermont Senate to vote vote against relicensing the plant last spring. But the battle isn’t over yet. Entergy, mindful that the future of nuclear energy (like that of offshore oil drilling) hangs in the balance, will do everything possible to win back Vermonters’ trust. After all, it’s been 35 years since the Three Mile Island meltdown. The much vaunted “nuclear renaissance” under the Obama administration seems to be on hold until the Vermont Yankee issue is resolved. No wonder Entergy officials have vowed after losing the Senate vote that they would remain “determined to prove our case to the legislature, state officials and the Vermont public” that the plant is a “vital, safe and reliable source of clean power.”

Problem is, things keep going wrong at the plant. On August 30, for instance, Entergy had to declare an “unusual event” after warning lights in its control room (seven fuses in seven different power supplies) failed. How safe is that?

BP, meanwhile, has its own shareholders worrying about rising legal costs and evidence of liability. Ever since it was able to cap the breach of its Deepwater Horizon rig, it has been putting out “all is well” signals through the media, with the federal government often acting as a willing partner. Thus, on August 9, the New York Times quoted government sources as saying “Three quarters of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon leak has already evaporated, dispersed, been captured or otherwise eliminated — and that much of the rest is so diluted that it does not seem to pose much additional risk of harm.” But local fishermen and independent journalists disagreed. They reported that the 1.8 million gallons of highly toxic dispersant that made oil disappear is profoundly affecting the health of their fellow workers and families, turned the entire Gulf into an eerie green color, and killed off far more wildlife than was being reported.

On August 23, even the Times had to reverse itself, challenging the government’s “rosy narrative” by citing a study by the University of Georgia saying the rate of evaporation and biological breakdown “had been greatly exaggerated.” The editorial also cited a report in Science magazine that a team of scientists had found an underground oil plume the size of Manhattan.

The government, the Times went on, ‘finds itself challenged” on another front, by its insistence on the safety of fish caught in the water. “Senior government officials announced flatly …that it is safe to eat fish and shrimp caught in the 78 percent of federal waters in the Gulf that are open to fishing – an assertion reinforced by photo-ops of President Obama eating seafood during a visit to the Gulf.”

Should we be reassured? The Times, having been hoodwinked previously, reserved some skepticism, noting that oil spill critic Rep Ed Markey of Massachusetts thought that “seafood now available is risk free” but that the government had not been testing enough in “off limits areas where oil still exists.” Above all, the editorial concluded, the Obama administration’s “larger problem is one of credibility, which can only be fixed with much clearer answers about the spill”

Meanwhile, clearer answers continue to pour in from around the Gulf, where local fishermen report finding shrimp coated with oil, and seeing crabs, stingrays, and dolphins desperately trying to escape the water, whose oxygen has been depleted by the use of chemical dispersants.

This brings me to the role of whistleblowers in defying the PR spin of both corporations. Thanks to EPA whistleblower Hugh Kaufman, we learn that “The sole purpose … for dispersants is to keep a cover up going for BP to try to hide the volumes of oil that has been released and save them hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars of fines.”

In Vermont, the heroes of the day are Arnie and Maggie Gunderson, whose Fairewinds consultancy firm succeeded in providing enough sound evidence of Vermont Yankee’s problems to break through industry lies and help convince the Vermont Senate to vote against relicensing Vermont Yankee. Now the Gundersons are questioning the “credibility of the whole nuclear regulatory process in the state of Vermont,” providing evidence in a recent report to the legislature that the Department of Health and the Department of Public Service had been “actively communicating with Entergy in an attempt to discredit” the efforts of Fairewinds to analyze the plant.

The Gundersons have an important ally in this ongoing battle: Vermont Senate ProTem President Peter Shumlin, who helped shepherd the anti-relicensing vote in the Vermont Senate last spring and on August 24th emerged as the winner in a highly contested, five-way race in the Democratic Party primary for governor. Pending a recount requested by runner-up Doug Racine, who is also opposed to extending Vermont Yankee’s license beyond 2012, Shumlin will be facing down Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Dubie, who supports Vermont Yankee.

As the battle lines are tightly drawn, Vermonters will be hearing from another candidate as well: this writer, who is running on the Progressive Party ticket for attorney general. I’ll be challenging the incumbent on his failure to deal with consumer fraud in Entergy’s advertising, and will strive for whistleblower protection in Vermont, which has the worst record in the country. It should be an interesting campaign with national ramifications. Stay tuned.

You can find out more about Charlotte’s campaign for Vermont attorney general at

Journalist and attorney Charlotte Dennett is the author of The People v. Bush: One Lawyer’s Campaign to Bring the President to Justice and the National Grassroots Movement She Encounters Along the Way, published by Chelsea Green.