USEC loses a key battle
By Joe Walker
The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant has lost a key congressional battle for nearly $16 million that would have helped ease about 425 job cuts and hastened a health study of workers who may have become ill from radiation and chemical exposure years ago.
"Hopefully, we'll live to fight another day, but we're running out of time," said David Fuller, president of the plant atomic workers' union. "While they're fiddling in Washington, Paducah is burning."
U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning of Kentucky said the extra money for this year can still be sought in 2001 budget work starting in the fall, but union officials say that won't help workers who will start losing jobs in July.
On Tuesday, the Senate took no action on $12.7 billion in supplemental federal funding for the current fiscal year, including $11.3 million for the Paducah plant pledged by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson in January. Of the $11.3 million, $8 million was for environmental cleanup work to help offset job losses and $3.3 million to speed up health screening of many former workers, which the union says could otherwise take 14 years.
McConnell said he will keep pursuing funding "regardless of whether the money is included in a supplemental appropriation bill or within another legislative vehicle. These issues are important to the workers of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, and I will continue to fight for them."
The senator, who pushed hard for the money, also lost a bid to secure roughly $4.5 million for enhanced severance for some of the 425 workers who will lose jobs, said Richard Miller, Washington-based policy analyst for the union.
The situation will force the job eliminations by plant operator USEC Inc., and workers who get pink slips will have less chance to move into Department of Energy environmental work, he said. The same situation exists at Paducah's sister plant near Portsmouth, Ohio.
"We have the worst-case scenario among the two plants for 850 layoffs," Miller said.
He said McConnell, a Republican, lost because of conservative ideology. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., squelched the Supplemental Appropriations Bill without a vote — after it passed the House last week by a 2-1 margin — because it had grown from $5.1 billion to $12.7 billion, he said.
"The Republican leadership made a decision to kill the supplemental bill, period," Miller said. "Sen. McConnell was held hostage, I think, by conservatives in the Republican Party even though the bill passed the House by an overwhelming margin."
Bunning, also a Republican, said he met Wednesday with Lott, "who has the prerogative to set the schedule for the Senate floor," and was assured that Paducah's money could be added to 2001 funding measures this fall. Bunning is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Although the Kentucky senators may seek money during the appropriations process in September, the job losses will be well under way, Miller said. USEC had planned to identify voluntary job cuts this month, assuming there would be funding for enhanced severance, he said.
"The problem is, there is nowhere nearly enough money in the DOE budget for enhanced severance," Miller said. He explained that the department would have to find at least $5 million and have Congress approve its spending for displaced worker benefits.
"DOE says, 'We don't have the money,' and Congress says, 'We're not providing it,'" Fuller said. "In the meantime, the secretary of Energy is running around the country, assuring people everything is going to be all right."
Richardson visited Paducah on Jan. 28 to pledge the $11.3 million, plus $105 million for next year. The 2001 money includes $78 million for cleanup work, $24 million for uranium hexafluoride cylinder management and $3 million to help displaced workers.
Of the $24 million, half would go toward building a job-producing facility to convert the cylinder waste material to something safer that eventually might be sold. But the project has repeatedly been postponed, prompting the union and congressional leaders to accuse DOE of foot dragging. They say the facility needs at least $30 million in "earnest money" to keep a contractor interested.
The union has been very vocal about funding because it represents about half the Paducah plant work force, which is expected to drop from about 1,700 to 1,275 by the end of the year.
This round of job cuts will hit the union much harder. USEC plans for 40 to 48 percent of the job losses to be atomic workers' union employees, compared with 35 percent in the cutting of about 200 jobs during the past two years.
Regardless of whether they choose to leave or are forced out, employees typically receive severance pay based on company service. At Paducah, that means three to 26 weeks' pay for union workers and 4.3 to 30.4 weeks' pay for salaried employees, based on tenure of five to 30 years.