The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

DOE again delays plant cleanup

All bids from contractors at the gaseous diffusion plant are to be re-evaluated. Meanwhile, a proposal could help keep worker benefits.

By Joe Walker

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Sen. Jim Bunning has opposed the nomination of David Garman as new undersecretary of energy because of a two-year delay in replacing Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant cleanup contractor Bechtel Jacobs with two smaller firms overseeing 550 workers.

Bunning voiced his opposition Wednesday during a Senate Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Garman's nomination. Although the committee nominated Garman, he still must be approved by the entire Senate and it was unclear whether Bunning would put a hold on the nomination from the floor.

Starting in October 2003, procurement was slowed several times by the Energy Department and further delayed earlier this year by multiple bid protests after North Wind Paducah Cleanup Co. was awarded a $303 million environmental contract. The General Accountability Office dismissed one protest March 28 and two more Tuesday.

In preparation for the hearing, and in consultation with the GAO, "We decided to re-evaluate the bids in an effort to make a selection as quickly as possible," DOE spokesman Mike Waldron said. "Our goal is to ensure that quality cleanup continues, and we hope to have the new contractor in place as quickly as possible."

He said the department will reconsider both technical and cost evaluations given by bidders in making a new award decision.

Bechtel Jacobs' contract has repeatedly been extended, most recently until Aug. 31. Waldron said the contract would be extended again if a replacement isn't picked by the end of August.

During the hearing, Bunning said it could be months before DOE reaches a final decision.

"I am not advocating that protests are not ever necessary," he said. "But I have a community, workers and an environmental cleanup program that have been waiting in limbo for over two years for something to happen. I want this fixed quickly."

The hearing came while the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved Whitfield's amendment requiring DOE to maintain pension and retiree health-care plans for USEC Inc. workers who might eventually be hired for cleanup work.

Leon Owens, former president of the Paducah nuclear workers' union, said it is the first legislation to force DOE to do what it has been unwilling to do since it decided to replace Bechtel Jacobs with two smaller firms, one for cleanup and another for infrastructure.

Last month, Paducah's Swift & Staley was awarded a $39.9 million infrastructure contract, but its status is unclear because of DOE's decision to re-evaluate bids.

The re-evaluation "means more delays and frustration," Whitfield said. "I am very disappointed that we do not have our new contractor in place. DOE needs to take action to correct this situation immediately."

He told the House Energy Committee on Tuesday that DOE has not provided pension and benefit continuity despite lawmakers' statements that it would not be costly.

He said the amendment directs the department to maintain benefit-transfer policies that have existed for about 50 years.

Current workers of Bechtel Jacobs and its leading subcontractors — many of whom are former plant employees — participate in multiple-employer pension and retiree health insurance plans.

Union leaders have repeatedly complained that at least 500 more hourly USEC workers would be denied those benefits in seeking contractor jobs. USEC plans to close the plant starting in 2010.

"This has been nearly a two-year fight, so we're very pleased to at least get to this point," Owens said. "We're very hopeful and optimistic of getting it passed."

Attached to the House Energy Bill, the amendment would provide enforcement authority under previous legislation privatizing USEC, which leases the plant from DOE.

The Energy Bill must still be approved by the House. Prospects in the Senate are uncertain, but Bunning and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky carry considerable clout in nuclear issues, Owens said. McConnell is the Senate majority whip.

The bipartisan amendment was co-sponsored by Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, and by Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, who represents nuclear workers at Piketon. Similar bid protests have held up cleanup procurement at Piketon.