September 13, 2017 – Earlier this year, the Mississippi Court of Appeals denied an appeal from Claiborne County residents over the way the state of Mississippi taxes the expensive Grand Gulf nuclear power plant in the town of Port Gibson. Undeterred, a representative of the Claiborne County NAACP now plans to continue the fight for Claiborne residents.
“When (legislators) took the taxing authority over Grand Gulf away from the local county board of supervisors they shifted more tax burden to the local taxpayers,” said Claiborne County-branch NAACP head Evan Doss. “That’s unequal taxation there. Every time the local supervisors raise local taxes they cannot raise Grand Gulf’s taxes, even though local taxes pay for law enforcement that keeps the plant safe and the roads that they use, as well as the school system. If Grand Gulf was paying their fair share the local taxpayers would not have to assume so much tax burden.”
The Mississippi Court of Appeals disagreed affirming a lower court’s decision that plaintiffs could not prove that local taxes were raised specifically because Grand Gulf revenue was off the table, even though Doss complains that the millage rate at the 1985 opening of Grand Gulf “was around 38 mills, and has since increased to 140 mills” over the 30-year lifespan of the plant. Or, to state it more simply, the Grand Gulf Power Plant’s profits have increased, but not their tax burden.
Entergy Mississippi’s nuclear plant had been the most expensive power plant ever built in this impoverished state. It remained the most lavish electric generator until Mississippi Power proposed a lignite-burning electric plant in Kemper County that topped the $7.8 billion mark this year.
Financing a nuclear plant was no easy feat for Entergy Mississippi ratepayers, who must shoulder the entirety of the cost because Entergy Mississippi—like most power companies—derives all of its revenue from electricity users, not wealthy stockholders. The company funded the plant by hiking Entergy customers’ electricity bills up to 30 percent after the facility came online. Some critics argue that a different calculation extends the worst of that rate hike up to 60 percent. Even today, electricity rates are still 15 percent above what they would be had the company never built the plant at all.
The high cost of the plant, shared among company customers, is one of the reasons state legislators claim they passed a 1986 law barring local governments from taxing the power plant traditionally. Instead, the Mississippi Department of Revenue divvies up Grand Gulf tax revenue between all the state counties and municipalities served by Entergy Mississippi, the state’s general fund and, eventually, Claiborne County. Under typical property taxation circumstances Claiborne County would receive all of the revenue generated by the power plant.
Claiborne County resident Emma Doss complained that Grand Gulf was not included on the tax roll, and that her property was taxed at a higher rate than Grand Gulf’s. She sued the Claiborne County Board of Supervisors, the state tax commission, and the state attorney general’s office, claiming that the unique tax scheme only exists in Claiborne County, possibly because it has an 84 percent African-American population. She argued that other types of power plants in “majority white counties” are taxed appropriately and traditionally.
Doss contended that “racial animus” prompted the majority-white legislature to create the statute, which infringes on her equal-protection rights.
Evan Doss agrees: “If this plant was in a predominately white county there is absolutely no way they would have divided (the revenue) up like this.”
Since the MS Court of Appeals rejected Emma Doss’ complaint in March, Claiborne County will continue to draw less revenue than what other majority-white counties get from their own power plants. The court decision is poorly-timed considering Claiborne County’s unfortunate financial state. Census figures show that 46 percent of the county lives in poverty. Median household income is only $23,259, with per capital income rounding out at about $12,000. The county’s extreme poverty puts it at a particularly-frightening disadvantage when it comes to taking care of the state’s only sixth-generation, 1,443 megawatt, enriched-uranium nuclear reactor.
While Claiborne County has a total of four fire stations, only one of those fire stations actually has firemen in it. In some worst-case scenarios, it is unlikely that a single firehose held by even the most determined fireman would quench the kind of flame produced by a molten nuclear core burning away its concrete housing.
Furthermore, only one local hospital, Claiborne County Medical Center, has the kind of facilities designed to wash radiation off of irradiated Grand Gulf employees (or irradiated Grand Gulf neighbors, for that matter). Grand Gulf, itself, pounded home the need for a proper medical and emergency response team in 2011, after employees accidentally dumped an undetermined amount of irradiated water into the Mississippi River. The frightening spill involved water laced with tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen.
In accord with popular opinion, radioactive tritium really does glow.
Paul Gunter, a nuclear reactor specialist and the director of nuclear watchdog group Beyond Nuclear, said the sparse, impoverished population of Claiborne County is utterly unprepared to be the site of a facility as potentially dangerous as a nuclear plant.
“The resources are not there for first responder action. The resources are not there for offsite security in the event of a terrorist attack,” Gunter said.
The local hospital, Gunter added, has never had the kind of budget that can manage the kind of problems a nuclear reactor could cause.
The demographics of the area suggest that the pain will not distribute evenly among white people and minorities. Entergy Mississippi’s own worst-case scenario, which it presented years ago to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, makes clear that Claiborne County and its majority-black residents will bear the brunt of any radioactive Grand Gulf-related catastrophe, despite legislators redistributing their Grand Gulf revenue elsewhere.
Entergy Mississippi outlined a “plume exposure pathway” in its emergency plan, which consists of a radius of approximately 10 miles around the plant “where the principal sources of incident-related radiation exposures are likely to be whole body gamma radiation exposures and inhalation exposures from the passing radioactive plume” resulting from “a radiological incident.”
In the event of “a radiological incident,” this plume of toxic contamination will overwhelm Claiborne County’s mostly black population before it dissipates into arguably tolerable levels. It is a situation that Doss finds insufferable, especially in light of Mississippi legislators’ determination to siphon resources away from Claiborne County.
“This is a very poor area. With all the risk the local population is taking having this plant there, it is only fair that neighbors get the same percentage of revenue generated by other power plants,” Doss said. “This is an injustice.”