On dozens of lawns and along just about every major street in Rowley, Massachusetts, Steve Comley has made known his request. Or maybe more accurately, it’s his definitive statement: President Obama is coming to Rowley.
The red, white and blue signs urge Obama to investigate the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Comley hopes that probe will start in Rowley with a one-on-one meeting. If that happens, finally he’ll be able to accomplish something he’s gone to extraordinary lengths to attempt over the past 27 years — give a president the secret tapes and the documents he’s amassed.
For almost 30 years, Comley, 70, has been on an obsessive campaign to hand deliver to the president a package of information he has gathered from anonymous whistleblowers, which he says shows a decades-old pattern of unfixed defects in the nation’s nuclear plants and a long trail of coverups by the NRC.
The Seabrook NextEra nuclear power plant in nearby Seabrook, New Hampshire in particular is his focus — Comley argues he has information to prove that it was improperly located, and as a result, it would be impossible to accomplish an emergency evacuation of the region, particularly in the summer months. Federal officials say the plant meets the standards, and the plant itself says Comley’s assertions about substandard parts are false.
He’s tried hard to get a president’s ear. Almost 30 years ago he managed to cleverly fool Ronald Reagan and slipped an envelope into his hand, but nothing came of it. A few years later, he was arrested when he tried to slip one to George H.W. Bush in a Portsmouth, N.H., restaurant. He’s been ignored by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
He’s written three letters to President Obama, and then started writing to his wife Michelle when those letters went unanswered. He’s also convinced others to write and implore Obama to come to Rowley. No luck so far.
Rowley is a natural place for the meeting, Comley argues, because in the 1980s, 80 percent of its citizens signed a petition calling for a probe of the nuclear industry. He said he can’t understand how a president can ignore such a clarion call from an American town.
“For every single day that he ignores my letter, he jeopardizes the American people, and that’s going to be on his legacy,” Comley said. “America needs Rowley’s help to see that democracy is alive and well in this country.”
Comley has printed 400 signs asking Obama to investigate the NRC, most of which have been set out along roadsides in neighboring towns. Just over 100 have been stolen, he said, especially in Seabrook, where the nuclear plant has been operating for 24 years.
“A lot of people in Seabrook don’t like what I’m doing,” he said.
Comley splashed onto the national scene in the late 1980s, when his We The People organization provided an outlet for nuclear industry whistleblowers to leak their information in confidence. According to the New York Times, Comley was instrumental in providing evidence of counterfeit parts in nuclear plants across the nation. The substandard parts were found in over two-thirds of the nation’s nuclear plants. The Washington Post, Time Magazine and the New York Times featured him on their news pages. He spent a small fortune lobbying in Washington, where his unusual style caught the media’s eye.
Back then, he was known for his gruffness and his antics — like hiring a plane to fly over the White House to urge then-President Ronald Reagan to call him. It was a good publicity stunt, so he used it two more times — to get Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ attention, and to criticize New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu. For a while he was banned from attending NRC meetings because the agency considered him to be so disruptive. He fought the NRC in court and won. Along the way, he’s also amassed significant court fines, which he estimates at over $1 million, chiefly for refusing to turn over tape recordings he made in the 1980s with a high-ranking NRC informant.
These days, the battles with the NRC are fewer and less flashy. Comley continues to attend hearings and barrage the agency with allegations. The NRC largely dismisses his statements as outdated information that is no longer relevant and unsubstantiated by any named individuals.
It doesn’t faze Comley.
He routinely visits local and regional newspaper offices and drops off thick packets of newsclippings, letters, photos and documents, ranging from tattered newsclips highlighting his maverick days in the 1980s to letters he wrote to Michelle Obama recently.
“This is my full-time job,” he said. “I guarantee you I’m going to bring Obama to Rowley.”
You can read more about Comley's campaign here.
John Macone is the editor of the Newburyport Daily News.