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Court grants NH nuclear plant some tax exemptions

Associated Press Modified: May 22, 2012 at 5:00 pm •  Published: May 22, 2012

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The owners of the Seabrook power plant cannot get tax exemptions on facilities that operate only in emergencies, though it can claim them on systems that run regularly, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday.

The ruling is the latest step in a fight that began when the plant's operator, NextEra Energy, renewed its application for the tax exemptions in 2010 and the town objected.

But the state ruled in 2011 that 21 facilities at the plant were eligible for exemptions to some extent, citing New Hampshire law that says a treatment facility is tax exempt if it is used to control, reduce or eliminate any source of water or air pollution. The state's ruling increased the plant's tax break more than 80 percent, a move that Seabrook officials say would shift a $2.2 million tax burden from the plant to taxpayers.

Lawyers for the town argued to the court that there was no justification for such an increase.

The court in its decision agreed with the part of the state ruling that said facilities that serve a valid pollution control purpose are tax exempt. Others that operate only in the event of an emergency, such as a loss-of-coolant accident, are not, the court ruled.

The court rejected NextEra Energy's arguments that the facilities that operate in emergencies only must be in place and thus operate regularly as backstops during an emergency situation.

"In short, for a facility to be considered a treatment facility, it must regularly operate," Justice Gary Hicks wrote.

Seabrook Town Manager Barry Brenner says the town is pleased with the ruling and will continue to maintain its good working relationship with the plant's owners. Lawyers for the plant did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

It is not known what portion of the $2.2 million tax break NextEra Energy gets to retain.

The court ruled the containment tower, containment spray system, containment cooling system and combustible gas control system were not treatment facilities eligible for tax exemption.

The plant is cooled by water drawn from the ocean and then returned to the ocean. The court ruled that discharge tunnels that carry that heated water into deeper waters in the ocean are tax exempt because those tunnels are designed to protect the Hampton Harbor marsh and estuarine system. The court also upheld tax exemptions for the plant's storm-water runoff and treatment system.

The court said the boron recycling system and the service water cooling tower do qualify for tax exemptions.

The court rejected the assertion by lawyers for the town that the state had to hold a hearing on its objections. The justice said state law requires it to investigate whether tax exemptions are justified, but does not require the agency to hold a hearing.