The Paducah Sun

January 29, 2000

Patton: More DOE funds needed

By Joe Walker
Sun Business Editor

KEVIL, Ky.

With hundreds more layoffs looming at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, reaction from Gov. Paul Patton and others is that Energy Secretary Bill Richardson's promise of $109 million for environmental cleanup and worker health programs is good, but not good enough.

Patton and other government, business and union officials expressed that view immediately after Richardson broke the news in a visit to Department of Energy environmental contract offices here Friday morning.

Flanked by Patton and U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, Richardson revealed the Clinton administration budget numbers to Paducah civic and business leaders. He then restated plans to a group of about 50 DOE contract workers and held a press conference.

Patton said that while he is "very pleased" with having $109 million - a doubling of what the plant received last year for plant cleanup work - the money falls short of what he and a delegation of Paducah leaders asked for in a December trip to the White House.

"This is real progress, but we still have a lot more work to do. It is going to take years to do all of the work that needs to be done," Patton said. "We didn't get all we asked for, so we'll continue to ask for more."

Next year, more will be known about the extent and cost of cleanup problems, he said. "We will be able with some knowledge and accuracy to tell the administration and Congress what it takes to live up to the government's commitment, which is to have it cleaned up by 2010."

The budget contains $78 million for cleanup work, compared with the current $54.2 million. Among other things, it will be used to remove a pile of contaminated drums known as "drum mountain" as well as 51,000 tons of contaminated scrap; dispose of 5,000 drums of low-level radioactive waste and ship more than 2,000 drums of hazardous and radioactive waste to another facility.

Richardson said cleanup should create openings in 2001 for about 300 employees of USEC Inc., which runs the DOE-owned Paducah plant. Union officials and federal lawmakers expect USEC to soon cut about 400 jobs at Paducah and 450 at its sister plant at Portsmouth, Ohio, for economic reasons. The USEC board will meet again next week to ponder layoffs, closing one of the plants and other cost reductions.

Despite the good news regarding cleanup funds, the Clinton budget falls well short of what the union and lawmakers say is needed to keep another highly publicized jobs project on track.

The budget has about $24 million for Paducah and $27 million for Portsmouth to handle 57,000 hazardous uranium hexafluoride cylinders, a waste product from uranium enrichment. At Paducah, $12 million is for tank maintenance and the rest for building a facility to convert the material to something safer that eventually might be sold.

Plant union officials and congressional aides say the project needs at least $60 million in "earnest money" between the plants to keep a contractor interested. Despite a federal law mandating recycling plants at Paducah and Portsmouth, a contract-award process is on hold again after being delayed several times last year. Various sources say there has been serious opposition among some of Richardson's DOE subordinates and in the Office of Management and Budget, which approves the DOE budget.

"I do believe that the secretary of energy is supportive of it but we do know there are people in the DOE that are opposed to it," Whitfield said. "One of the arguments now is that the material is contaminated and needs more testing. But the labor union says we have thorough records back to 1980 on this material and there is no question about what is there."

Whitfield said Congress will work hard to obtain more money, "but from what the secretary and his staff said it sounded like they are satisfied with the amount of money they have. We want more."

Sen. Mitch McConnell, who authored legislation for the recycling project, said the budget shows the Clinton administration "has no intention" of building the conversion facilities.

McConnell also said that while he is pleased with total funding, he is disappointed that Richardson "has attempted to double count funds that he obligated last year. If the Clinton-Gore administration wants to keep cleanup on track, they need to present a legitimate request for new money, rather than recounting last year's money."

Richardson sidestepped the charge of resistance to the conversion project, saying that with the help of Patton, federal lawmakers, the White House and Paducah delegation, there is much more general cleanup funding than ever. He said a request for conversion contractor proposals should go out before September.

"We think we can stay on schedule (with conversion). You don't want to have money that can't be used," he said. "Let's take care of the cleanup work that needs to be done consistent with that."

Richardson said his top priority is money for environmental, health and safety studies and worker health monitoring ($4.3 million) and cleanup to help offset the unsightly legacy of the plant.

"I really feel that workers here at Paducah and at Portsmouth need to be treated right, especially if somehow they were not told the truth about their potential illnesses," he said.

David Fuller, president of the Paducah plant atomic workers' union, said more funding for cylinder conversion is critical, considering that hundreds of layoffs could occur soon. The project, which would employ about 100 workers, is at least a year behind schedule, he said.

"I would've loved to have seen enough money put into that to have gotten it off the ground," Fuller said. "But for some reason that I'm not altogether clear on there's hesitancy within the department to go ahead and pull the trigger on that."

Fuller reserved judgment on overall funding, saying he was studying how much of it translates to saving jobs.

"I would hate to see the majority of that money used up by consultants and engineering firms and other ways that it seems there are to make money disappear," he said. "Insomuch as I trust it's intended to provide real jobs for real people who evidently are about to lose their jobs, it's...a step in the right direction."

Fuller said the union was completing agreements to allow laid-off USEC workers to flow into cleanup work. He said Richardson encouraged him by saying he would do what he could to keep the work steady rather than seasonal.

Greater Paducah Economic Development Council President Kristin Williams, one of several Paducah area officials who met with Richardson, said she is happy with total funding, yet is worried about parts of the package.

"I'm pleased at the progress we've made but we're not there yet," she said. "I think, like everybody else, we have some concerns about the (cylinder conversion) program and want to make sure there is enough money in the 2001 budget to make it a viable project."

Williams also chairs the Paducah Area Community Reuse Organization, a DOE-funded group that is studying ways to lessen the impact of layoffs or plant closure. Last year, Richardson promised the group $8 million and it received $6 million. It needs another $8 million this year and if $3 million - set aside for worker transition activities - is the total amount PACRO will receive, that is inadequate, she said.

"I'm not really sure what those dollars are for," Williams said. "When you look at the uncertainty with USEC and possible layoffs, that's going to make every component of our work 10 times more important."