Is Washington listening to Piketon?

By Frank Lewis

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On Sept. 3, members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1-689 and USW International traveled to Washington DC where they met with some staff members of the Ohio Congressional delegation and the House Appropriations Committee as well as the United States Department of Energy (DOE). With a projected $55 million to $80 million shortfall, the DOE has sent WARN Act notices to employees.

Herman Potter, president of Local 689 said the representatives stressed that the Decontamination and Decommissioning (D&D) cleanup project at Piketon cannot be successfully and safely completed with a reduction of 275 USW 689 workers. Potter said the group stressed that the reliance of the sales of uranium could impact the numbers to be more in the future. He made reference to the new limitation on uranium barter which went from the ability to barter 2,055 metric tons of uranium to 1,600 metric tons coming into this year.

“That program is only temporary, so eventually it’s going to slowly die out and in the next few years it’s going to go away altogether,” Potter said. “If there is no determination on how to find any other funding to basically make up the difference in that, slowly there’s going to be people laid off every year until they get to the point where it stabilizes, and then you get into the situation that if it stabilizes to a point, how much meaningful work is being done.” He said there is a lot of work at the plant site that is just to maintain the infrastructure and only a portion of that work deals with the actual cleanup. Potter said it could get down to the level that no meaningful work is being done, and they just stop the project.

Potter said he believes the current level is already approaching a safety issue.

“I think we’re getting down there now,” Potter said. “It gets down to a point where we have people working extra hours and whether they (DOE) like it or not, the funding seems to be driving less training and here we’re dealing with some pretty nasty stuff.”

Did Potter’s message resonate with officials?

“I think they heard it but I think there’s a reluctance to make any commitments right now,” Potter told the Daily Times. “I don’t know if they’re going to fix the shortfall in the budget. I think it’s all going to depend on people in the community writing letters and telling them how important it is.”

Potter reemphasized Oct. 1 seems to tentatively be the deadline for funding or layoffs.

“There’s probably going to be some grace period there as they transition people out,” Potter said. “It’s our understanding that come Oct. 1 they’re going to start laying off people and there’s going to be a transition process and retraining and that type of stuff.”

Potter said, by laying off a lot of workers there is a cost that is not being viewed by those in the position to solve the problem.

“If they allow this layoff to go through it’s still going to cost at least $16 million because of benefits and severances and those types of things,” Potter said. “That’s $16 million that they get nothing in return. That’s like throwing money away.”

Potter said the search is on to find money to prevent layoffs in the immediate time frame.

“It does not appear that anybody knows where that money is going to come from,” Potter said. “They made it very clear that there’s other DOE sites that have the same type of situation. They want funding also.”

A town hall meeting was scheduled for Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Pike County Government Center, 230 Waverly Plaza in Waverly.

Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.

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