Grand Gulf plan environmental racism,’ opponents claim

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 22, 2004

Chip Cameron, left, of Nuclear Regulatory Commission headquarters moderates discussion on a possible second reactor at Grand Gulf Nuclear Station. The speaker at right,is Dave Ritter of the Washington, D.C., organization Public Citizen.(Sam Knowlton The Vicksburg Post)

[1/22/04]PORT GIBSON The racial mix of Claiborne County’s population became an issue Wednesday as opponents of a site-permitting application argued their case to federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff.

About 100 people gathered at City Hall for the NRC hearing, part of the lengthy process to decide whether to allow a second reactor at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station if the owners, Entergy Nuclear, eventually choose to exercise that option.

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Grand Gulf, Mississippi’s only nuclear-powered electrical generating plant, is about 7 miles northwest of Port Gibson and 24 miles southwest of Vicksburg.

The meeting was the first official NRC public hearing since Entergy’s October application for permission to expand its electricity-generating capacity at Grand Gulf. The announced purpose was to gather comments on what environmental issues the NRC should consider in its review of Entergy’s site permit.

Attorneys for a coalition that said it plans to fight the application argued that since Claiborne County’s population is mainly black and operating nuclear plants involves safety and environmental risks, to add a reactor at Grand Gulf would be “environmental racism.”

The theory is that hazardous developments are too often placed where minorities and poor people live. A group in Louisiana used the theory and won a 1998 victory when it opposed location of a radioactive-waste-generating plant between two rural, mainly black, communities in Northern Louisiana.

A similar claim against the Entergy application discussed Wednesday is “a genuine issue that must be considered,” said Alexander Martin, district attorney for Claiborne, Copiah and Jefferson counties.

Entergy’s top on-site executive at Grand Gulf, George Williams, disagreed.

“If I felt that this was potentially racial in nature, I would not be standing here tonight,” he said.

Williams added that most of the nation’s 103 nuclear-power plants are not located in majority-black areas.

Claiborne County’s has about 12,000 residents and 84 percent are black.

Entergy has addressed the environmental-justice issue in its permit application, said Entergy business development manager Ken Hughey.

An NRC delegation of about 30 staff members heard comments from 18 speakers over three hours at Wednesday’s meeting. Also in attendance were about eight Entergy representatives.

Six of the speakers were from Claiborne County or Southern Warren County. Four expressed strong opposition to the application, one expressed support of the idea and one urged that Entergy communicate better with area residents.

Former Claiborne County Emergency Management Director A.C. Garner, who said he was representing the county’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Warren County resident Martha Ferris stressed the need to prepare for any emergency that might occur at the plant.

“We take the position that we cannot at this time support a second unit until issues are cleared up,” Garner said.

Claiborne County businessman Phil Segrest said Grand Gulf had been, on balance, good for the county since its opening in 1985.

“We’re far better with it than without it,” he said.

The construction period lasted more than 10 years, about $3 billion was spent in the county and the plant today provides virtually all property taxes paid in the entire county.

Further public hearings and comment periods will be required for the company to obtain complete regulatory approval. NRC staff said questions of the need for power, the cost of power and alternative energy sources were not on Wednesday’s agenda.

An NRC decision on the application is expected in about three years.

Gunter and Ferris had spoken in the same room at a May meeting organized by opponents of the plan. That meeting drew a crowd of about 50.

The coalition opposed to the application was represented by more people Wednesday. Before the official NRC public hearing, it held a press conference at which it was joined by six other people including the attorneys and representatives of the Mississippi Sierra Club, the Mississippi Green Party, the Alliance for Affordable Energy and the Washington, D.C.-based organization Public Citizen.