January 27, 2000
Richardson coming Friday
By Bill Bartleman
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson will visit Paducah on Friday to announce a significant increase in funding for cleanup work at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, according to Gov. Paul Patton.
Patton said the major announcement will involve funding for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Richardson also is expected to say that the Clinton administration will ask Congress to add more funds to the current budget for worker health testing and environmental cleanup of the area known as "drum mountain."
Patton would not reveal how much the cleanup budget will be next year, except to say that it will be substantial. Patton has made two trips to Washington to ask Richardson and President Clinton to increase the current cleanup budget of $37 million to at least $100 million a year.
Patton said that before he agreed to join Richardson in Paducah, he had to be assured that Richardson planned a major announcement about funding. "I don't want to go down there if he only is repeating a previous commitment or if he is just trying to appease us," Patton said before learning details of the announcement.
His staff spent most of the day Wednesday talking to officials in the Department of Energy and the White House to learn details of the announcement. At one point Wednesday, one of his staff members said the announcement would have to be for at least $75 million for the governor to meet with Richardson.
Patton said he wasn't trying to diminish the importance of Richardson's visit, but was trying to maintain a tough stance that Paducah needs a significant increase in funding to clean up radioactive and chemical contamination.
"I didn't want to go down there and stand with the secretary and act like I was endorsing what he was doing if he wasn't going to give us close to what we want," Patton said.
At 5 p.m. Wednesday, the governor agreed to make the trip to Paducah. Once he agreed, Richardson finalized his plans and Department of Energy officials made a public announcement about the visit.
"The secretary's announcement will not be for as much as I would have liked, but it is a lot more than Paducah has been getting," Patton said. "It will be substantial."
A DOE release said Richardson also will visit the gaseous diffusion plant in Portsmouth, Ohio, to discuss cleanup funding for the next fiscal year. The schedule includes a 9:55 a.m. meeting with employees in Paducah and a 2:20 meeting with employees in Portsmouth.
David Fuller, president of the Paducah plant atomic workers' union, said Richardson will meet with union leaders at about 9 a.m. Fuller said he was not told of the specific purpose of the trip, but understands it concerns environmental funding.
Union officials, congressional delegations and civic leaders from Kentucky and Ohio are concerned whether the Clinton budget has enough funding for environmental cleanup work to help ease the expected layoffs of hundreds more plant workers. Next week, the board of directors of USEC Inc., which runs the plants, will meet to consider various cost-cutting measures. Those reportedly include shutting one plant or laying off as many as 850 at both plants.
The chief job-producing cleanup project involves building facilities at the plants to convert thousands of cylinders of uranium hexafluoride waste into something safer with potential commercial use. But DOE officials haven't said how much money is available for the next fiscal year and a final request for proposals to hire a contractor is on hold. Delayed at least twice last year, the request was to have gone out Dec. 15.
"We are confident we have enough money in the budget to keep this project moving forward," DOE headquarters spokeswoman Lisa Cutler said earlier this month. "We will issue a formal request for proposals later this year."
Although Congress mandated the conversion project, DOE says it must find budget offsets for $373 million in a special Treasury Department fund for the project. The money must be appropriated by February 2002 or be lost to the general fund unless the deadline is extended.
Legislation requires DOE to have conversion plants running at Paducah and Portsmouth by 2004. Richard Miller, Washington-based policy analyst for the atomic workers' union at the plants, said the only spendable money available is $29 million - $24 million in DOE funds promised by Richardson and $5 million appropriated by Congress last year - and the project realistically needs $60 million to $80 million more.
Kentucky U.S. Sens. Jim Bunning and Mitch McConnell have said Richardson made a firm promise to fund the conversion work and they are waiting to see if the Clinton budget verifies that.
Fuller said he also expects Richardson to keep his promise, although the union has heard rumors that the announcement will fall short of anticipated funding.
"The workers understand these issues," he said. "If Secretary
Richardson arrives Friday to announce anything less than what it takes to
fund this project, it's not going to fool them. It's not going to satisfy
workers who are carrying home a pink slip."