Movement to block nuclear plant rescue in Ohio gets setback


By John Seewer - Associated Press



TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — A group attempting to overturn the roughly $1 billion financial rescue for Ohio’s two nuclear power plants won’t get additional time to collect signatures needed for a statewide vote, a federal judge has ruled.

The decision issued Wednesday night comes after the group missed a deadline this week to turn in enough signatures to get on the ballot next year. But the ruling did give them an opening to keep alive efforts aimed at blocking what they say is an unfair, politically driven bailout of the nuclear plants.

Ohio lawmakers in July approved the rescue by adding a new fee on every electricity bill in the state and scaling back requirements that utilities generate more power from wind and solar. The fees will generate $150 million a year beginning in 2021 for FirstEnergy Solutions’ two nuclear plants near Toledo and Cleveland.

While the new law benefiting the nuclear plants will remain in place, the opponents known as Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts now plan to take their case to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Attorneys for Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts argued this week in a Columbus federal court that the state waited so long to authorize its proposed ballot initiative that it didn’t have enough time to collect the 265,000 signatures required.

They also told U.S. District Court Judge Edmund Sargus that backers of the plants tried to sabotage the petition drive by spending millions on misleading advertising as well as blocking people from collecting signatures and offering them money to quit their efforts.

Lawyers for the state who argued against the extension said that the referendum effort was poorly run and there wasn’t a reason to give them more time, according to media reports.

Sargus said in his ruling that Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts turned to the wrong court in its effort to get extra time for its petition drive. His ruling said the issues they’ve raised deal with state law and belong before the Ohio Supreme Court.

Under state law, referendum seekers have 90 days to collect and submit valid signatures. But the group said it lost 38 days while waiting for the state to approve its petition language.

“We look forward to making our case to the Ohio Supreme Court that the petitioning ‘blackout’ period is an unfair infringement on our constitutional right to referendum,” Gene Pierce, a spokesman for Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, said in a statement.

Investors and developers in the state’s natural gas industry, along with backers of green energy, have led the fight against rescuing the nuclear plants, saying the state’s maneuvering too heavily tipped the scales against them.

FirstEnergy Solutions maintained that the money was needed to prevent the plants from closing and withstand competition from cheaper energy sources such as natural gas, wind and solar. It also said the aid would save several thousand jobs and protect the state’s main source of clean energy.

The company said last week that a setback in the courts or the successful submission of petitions to put a referendum on the ballot would put the nuclear plants on shaky ground. It added that it would be forced to begin looking at closing the plants “if alternative measures to provide needed financial support do not arise quickly.”

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Associated Press writer Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati contributed to this report.

By John Seewer

Associated Press