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House and Senate support bill to end property tax exemptions for Maine Yankee

A sign warns against trespassing at the heavily guarded former Maine Yankee nuclear power plant, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, in Wiscasset, Maine. The facility stores spent fuel rods at the site. The U.S. government has been required to pay out $160 million to the operators of defunct nuclear plants in Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts over its failure to find a national dumping ground for nuclear waste. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
A sign warns against trespassing at the heavily guarded former Maine Yankee nuclear power plant, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, in Wiscasset, Maine. The facility stores spent fuel rods at the site. The U.S. government has been required to pay out $160 million to the operators of defunct nuclear plants in Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts over its failure to find a national dumping ground for nuclear waste.

Both chambers of the Legislature have given initial approval to a bill to end a property tax exemption for Maine Yankee as lawmakers sided with Wiscasset officials in a tax dispute with the decommissioned nuclear power plant.

The fight centers on a $93 million tax exemption that Maine Yankee received last year from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection under a pollution control program for industrial facilities. Wiscasset officials lost an appeal to the Maine Board of Environmental Protection but are now pleading their case in Superior Court.

Wiscasset officials said the change reduced the town's property tax base by nearly 15 percent, or $1.6 million. The result, officials said, is that town residents are now footing the bill for road maintenance, plowing and fire and police protection at the site where spent nuclear fuel is stored.

The town argues that the pollution control program wasn't intended to apply to heavily reinforced containers that hold radioactive fuel from the decommissioned plant. Sen. Cameron Reny, D-Round Pond, and Rep. Edward Polewarczyk, R-Wiscasset, are co-sponsoring the bill, LD 2027, to exclude Maine Yankee by making it clear that emissions or particles from spent nuclear fuel do not qualify for the tax exemption.

"The statute for air pollution control facilities is outdated, it's too vague, in fact this tax exemption was created before Maine Yankee even opened its doors in 1972," Reny said during a Senate floor speech on Tuesday. "It's a problem of the statute needing clarity and it is our job as legislators to fix it."

But Maine Yankee has argued that the federal government classifies airborne radiation as an air pollutant, as do other regulations in Maine. During the committee process, representatives for Maine Yankee said the 64 containers holding spent nuclear fuel are protecting the environment and public health by preventing the airborne release of radionuclides.

Opponents said lawmakers should wait until after a court case is resolved before trying to change the tax exemption program.

Maine Yankee was a 900-megawatt nuclear power plant that operated from 1972 to 1997. After decommissioning, the plant's reactor and other structures were removed from the site. But the spent fuel rods from the plant are still housed in the steel and concrete containers located at a highly secure site in Wiscasset. And that's where the fuel rods will likely stay until the federal government settles on a permanent solution to storing the nation's spent nuclear fuel.

In the meantime, the federal government is supposed to reimburse Maine Yankee and other operators of facilities that store the spent fuel rods. But Maine Yankee officials said they frequently have to sue the federal government to receive reimbursement and there is no guarantee that they will be reimbursed for property tax expenditures.