The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

DOE urged to save workers´ pensions

Whitfield, union backing employees

By Joe Walker

Friday, January 20, 2006

A union lawsuit or more congressional action is in the offing if the Department of Energy continues to ignore a new law protecting the pensions of displaced Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant workers who might get plant cleanup jobs, U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield says.

Noting that the intention of Congress was “quite clear,’ Whitfield said in a House subcommittee hearing Thursday in Paducah that he hopes senior Energy Department officials will “come to the common-sense conclusion’ to adhere to the law.

If not, nuclear plant unions here and in Piketon, Ohio, may sue DOE to enforce the law, said Rob Ervin, president of United Steelworkers Local 5-550.

Ervin was one of six witnesses before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing in the Paducah City Commission chambers. It was the first field hearing of the subcommittee chaired by Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville. Only one other member, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan, attended.

Another option in the pension squabble is for Congress to reinforce language passed in the Energy Conference Report last fall, Whitfield said.

Although the law directs DOE to maintain longtime pension and health care transfer policies, DOE refuses to extend those benefits to the new cleanup contractor, Paducah Remediation Services. In April, the firm will replace longtime contractor Bechtel Jacobs, which with subcontractor Weskem employs 159. Those employees are believed to be protected by previous agreements, but DOE is excluding plant workers employed by USEC Inc. who may one day opt for cleanup jobs.

The 1,100-job plant is expected to close starting in 2010. Many of the workers have decades of accumulated pension.

DOE “vigorously lobbied’ against the legislation and intends to reduce pension cost nationally by “taking it out of the pockets of the workers,’ Ervin said. “We hope DOE will not make it a routine practice to require two acts of Congress.’

DOE attorneys conclude that the law doesn´t apply to contracts signed after April 1 of last year, testified James Rispoli, assistant secretary for environmental management.

Besides protecting pensions, community leaders want greater say in trying to bring new industry to the plant once it is cleaned up. McCracken County Judge-Executive Danny Orazine testified that the 750-acre plant and several thousand acres surrounding it should be included in a master plan for economic development.

“Rightly or wrongly, the community feels discriminated’ against by being left out of DOE planning for the eventual use of the factory, he said. Orazine noted a fresh federal court ruling in Washington state that says communities must be directly involved in such planning under the Superfund law.

He also said the county will seek payment of in-lieu-of property taxes for the sprawling plant. Whitfield said the 1998 law that privatized USEC requires the firm to pay the taxes, even though it leases the factory from DOE.

After the hearing, County Administrator Steve Doolittle said in-lieu-of tax payments are made in more than 20 communities nationwide that have DOE plants. Although those payments range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly, no estimate has been made for McCracken County, he said.

Orazine and Mayor Bill Paxton, who also testified, want DOE to lift a ban on the sale of contaminated scrap metal at its plants so that an estimated $300 million in nickel blocks at Paducah can be cleaned, sold and the proceeds used for cleanup and seeking new industry. DOE is considering partially lifting the ban, and Rispoli told Whitfield that by mid-summer the department will have compiled alternate uses for the nickel. He declined to say if the ban will be lifted.

Orazine said the county wants $150,000 in federal money to pay for having a DOE person at Paducah exclusively to help find new industrial uses for the plant after cleanup. Whitfield noted that Paducah is entitled to fair treatment because seven DOE people work in the same capacity at Oak Ridge, Tenn., where a gaseous diffusion plant closed many years ago. Some of the plant buildings have been turned over to the community for new industry.

Rispoli said testing will begin within a few days on 14 metal cylinders of spent uranium hexafluoride at the Paducah plant to see if they contain traces of phosgene, a highly corrosive chemical once used in warfare. The canisters were acquired by DOE from the Army´s Chemical Warfare Service in the 1940s and 1950s. Testing of 11 similar cylinders at Piketon showed no phosgene, Rispoli said, and DOE doesn´t think there is phosgene at Paducah.

A Sept. 30 memo from the DOE Inspector General´s Office said that based on preliminary findings, phosgene may have been left in some of the 1,825 cylinders at Paducah. The memo referred to a 2000 report that some of the cylinders were very rusty and others may have been breached. However, DOE officials later downplayed the memo, saying they had narrowed potential phosgene contamination to only several cylinders at Paducah.

Whitfield asked if workers and plant neighbors are safe.

“I believe the correct answer is, to the best of our knowledge,’ Rispoldi said.