Originally created 08/14/97

Officials fear SRS layoffs could lower work quality



With 10,000 jobs already trimmed from Savannah River Site payrolls in recent years, another 93 might seem like a drop in the bucket.

But news that one in six federal workers at the plant could get pink slips early next month is concerning environmental agencies regulating cleanup at the plant.

The reason: Federal employees who oversee operations at the 310-square-mile plant are laid off based on seniority rather than expertise.

"We are concerned about the quality of work," said Mr. Collinsworth, who monitors SRS cleanup for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. "We could end up dealing with someone from reactor operations suddenly doing environmental restoration."

SRS has signed an agreement with DHEC and the United States Environmental Protection Agency to clean up soil and watersheds contaminated during decades of nuclear production. All cleanup projects have dates by which they have to be completed - something DHEC and EPA are not willing to renegotiate, the agencies said Wednesday.

Energy Secretary Federico Pena sent a chill through his 11,300 government employees earlier this month when announcing that under a worst case budget scenario, between 1,500 and 2,000 might be laid off. Congress is proposing to cut up to $1.2 billion from Mr. Pena's $16 billion agency in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

It would be the first involuntary layoff facing the Department of Energy's federal workers since the agency began downsizing in the early 1990s. SRS' federal work force has dropped from 660 to 550 through attrition during that time.

The final budget for fiscal 1998 won't be hammered out for another month or so, but Mr. Pena has directed his facilities to plan for the worst.

"We have to get people off the rolls as quickly as possible because the longer we keep people on the payrolls the bigger the number (of pink slips) gets," Energy Department spokesman Jim Giusti said Wednesday. "It could go higher than 93."

What the impact on environmental cleanup and other programs will be if SRS' federal payroll drops after Oct. 1 remains unclear, he said.

If an engineer or manager involved in environmental work is laid off, "you can't just stick another body in there," Mr. Giusti said. "You can't stick someone in a job who's not qualified."

Employees who are transferred from other jobs get a 90-day orientation, he said.

But Jeff Crane who handles the SRS cleanup agreement for EPA called it a "potentially unfortunate situation."

If the environmental remediation program, which apparently has a significant number of employees with low seniority, is hard-hit "we might be dealing with a lot of new faces," he said. "That could affect their ability to comply (with the cleanup agreement), from a quality and ability standpoint."