Utah Appeals Court decision OKs water leases for planned Green River nuclear power plant
by Molly Marcello
The Times-Independent
Aug 04, 2016 | 5250 views | 0 0 comments | 139 139 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The leases to 53,600 acre-feet of water in the Green River, held by a company proposing to build a nuclear power plant in the area, are now secure, following a decision by the Utah Court of Appeals. On July 21, Appeals Court Judge Kate A. Toomey issued an opinion upholding an earlier decision by Seventh District Court Judge George Harmmond Jr. in Price, which stated that Blue Castle Holdings’ nuclear project would not significantly reduce water levels in the Green River, allowing the project to move forward. Judge J. Frederic Voros and Judge Pamela T. Greenwood concurred in the Utah Appeals Court decision.

“This project has had a significant level of scrutiny over the last seven years ... [and] a lot of the criticisms from environmental groups have never been demonstrated through the court process or regulations,” said Aaron Tilton, CEO of Blue Castle Holdings.

Both the Kane County and San Juan County water conservancy districts agreed to lease their existing water rights to Blue Castle Holdings for use by the proposed nuclear power plant. In January 2012, Utah State Engineer Kent Jones approved a change application that allowed both water districts to move their points of diversion from several small tributaries to a single location upstream on the Green River.

Environmental group HEAL Utah protested that change, contending that the change application would result in reduction in flows to the Green River, unreasonably affecting the natural stream environment and negatively affecting public welfare.

However, in November 2013, 7th District Court Judge Harmond disagreed, finding that 99 percent of the time the width of the river would be reduced less than 1.5 feet — from an average width of approximately 350 feet — and the depth would be reduced less than 1.5 inches. On July 22, the Utah Court of Appeals upheld Harmond’s reasoning.

“Although it has identified some evidence to undermine the Applicants’ reasoning, HEAL Utah’s unsupported arguments are not sufficient to compel the denial of the change applications,” the court decision stated. “We therefore affirm the district court’s decision.”

The Court of Appeals decision went on to find that although “concerns regarding the environmental impacts and the radiological health are valid,” federal and state oversight would not allow the project to actually proceed if it were found detrimental to the public welfare.

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has not yet permitted the project, however Tilton said Blue Castle Holdings is approximately halfway through an early site permit process with the federal agency.

The early site permit has been estimated to cost between $50 million and $100 million, and Blue Castle Holdings has raised just $17.5 million at this point, according to court documents. The cost of the overall project has been estimated to cost anywhere from $15 to $20 billion.

Environmental groups have pointed to Blue Castle’s low financing numbers as proof that the project is ultimately not going to happen. Although the company has secured its water leases, Matt Pacenza, executive director of HEAL Utah, said Blue Castle Holdings simply does not have the financing to push this project forward.

“The reality is they just don’t have the resources. They themselves have said [the early site permit] would cost $50 [million] to $100 million and we learned in court they’ve only raised a tiny fraction of that money,” Pacenza said.

Sarah Fields, executive director of Uranium Watch, said Blue Castle Holdings will now actually have to pay the Kane and San Juan County water districts for the water leases.

“They will have to start paying every year and it’s $100,000 to the Kane County Water Conservancy District and $80,000 to the San Juan County Water Conservancy District. So it would be $180,000 all together each year. Then in five years, the payment to Kane County goes up to $500,000,” Fields said. “ ... That’s a good amount of money and I’m sure it will be a drain on their resources.”

Tilton said those criticisms are unfounded, adding that “all of the evidence” in Blue Castle Holdings’ financial and business models have proven to the courts that they are “properly planning” their nuclear project.

“Virtually at every turn and with every assertion the environmental activists have made they’ve been wrong. First, the state engineer, second, the 7th District Court, third, the appellate court,” Tilton said. “ ... As far as their criticisms or assertions, at some point we let our results speak for themselves.”

But Pacenza said that in the nine years that the project has been on the table, there have been little results. He added that no formal communication has been documented between Blue Castle Holdings and the NRC since 2011.

“Tilton has been saying for the last eight years that they’ll turn their application in to the NRC within two years,” Pacenza said. “ ... I think the reality is, no one is buying what they’re selling,” Pacenza said. “It just isn’t going anywhere.”

But in a July 22 news release, Blue Castle Holdings officials stated that as Utah’s coal plants retire, the state’s energy future will move to nuclear energy.

“The proposed multi-unit nuclear plant could increase the electricity generated in Utah by approximately 30 percent by adding 2,200 megawatts of installed electrical capacity, using less than 1 percent of the state’s current water diversion,” the news release stated. “The Blue Castle Project will have a significant beneficial economic impact for the entire State of Utah and the hosting local communities.”

Editor's Note: This version corrects that the 7th District Court Judge who heard the original appeal was Judge George Harmond, Jr. in Price.

Copyright 2013 The Times-Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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