$860K well spent

Lobbying reports released by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission this morning show that Chicago-based Exelon Corp. spent $860,882 on lobbying costs during 2010.

That number puts the company third on the list of top spenders behind the state teachers union and Verizon, one of the state’s largest employers.

But opinions around the state vary over just how much influence Exelon’s money bought.

Throughout the course of 2010, Exelon was embroiled in a fight over Oyster Creek Nuclear Power plant.  State officials and environmental advocates had in the past pushed the company to build new cooling towers at the Lacey Township plant, a project which some estimates said would cost as much as $800 million.

Instead, in December, Exelon received a reprieve.  State officials determined that the plant should be closed and replaced with non-nuclear energy plants.  The plan submitted by the DEP called for the plant to be shuttered in 2019 – ten years earlier than originally intended – and in exchange, no additional cooling towers were required, saving the company millions while allowing the lucrative plant to remain open for eight years.

DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said any lobbying money spent by Exelon was irrelevant to the discussion of the plant’s closure.  Closing the plant was Exelon’s choice, Ragonese stressed, made in the face of DEP discussions to require the plant to upgrade its cooling system.

“We negotiated the closing of the plant so the issue of the cooling towers doesn’t come into play here,” Ragonese said, “because in fact the plant will be closing by 2019. It doesn’t save them money because they are going to be closing. If they were going to stay open for 20 years then the issue of the cooling towers would be on the table.  That’s no longer on the table because they are closing the plant.”

Ragonese said the cooling system in place at the plant is functional for the short term while the plant winds down.  In addition, Ragonese said new regulations proposed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency left some uncertainty over what would be required at Oyster Creek.  Pushing for towers could have landed the agency in court, he said.

“There was no certainty as to what we could require,” he said. “What this deal does is provide certainty as the plant winds down.”

Sierra Club Political Director Jeff Tittel had a far different view of the deal cut between DEP and Exelon.

“This just goes to show you that special interests are alive and well. Not only are they alive and well in New Jersey but they get results, especially if they are industry,” Tittel said. “They spent a lot of time and money fighting us on cooling towers and at the end of the day they got the deal they wanted.  They can run the plant for the next 10 years without having to put a dime into it or build the cooling towers.  Once the plant closes they can continue drawing water from Barnegat Bay for 30 years during the decommissioning of the plant. “

Dave Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Envronmental Federation, lands somewhere between his colleague and the administration. According to Pringle, the administration played the hand it was dealt in dealing with Exelon.  The only stick available to the DEP was the cooling towers, which Pringle agreed would likely have landed the state in court with an uncertain future.

The resulting deal, Pringle said, is about the best that could be expected.

“I’m confident that Exelon was hoping for and lobbying for a very different deal than the one they got,” Pringle said. “I don’t think the difference maker and why we didn’t get a better deal than we did was the $860,000, it was how flawed federal environmental and nuclear regulatory procedures are.”

Still, Pringle concedes allowing the company nine years to wind down is not optimal.

“I think it’s very noteworthy how much money Exelon is spending and I think it’s another anecdote about how screwed up our system is.”

A spokesman for Exelon did not immediately return a call for comment.

Exelon did not fair as well earlier in the year when Department of Environmental Protection officials forced the company to begin clean-up of a spill that leaked radioactive contamination into the local groundwater.  The leak was discovered in 2009 and was investigated by officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, who did not require clean-up.  Plant officials contended that the levels of nuclear contaminant were dropping and that it was working diligently to ensure it did not reach local drinking water.

Nevertheless, the DEP required the company to install new monitoring wells and eventually ordered the tainted water pumped from local aquifers. $860K well spent