Originally created 06/26/02

Hodges stalls funds, experts say



AIKEN - Savannah River Site is the only major nuclear installation in the country that has yet to be given an indication of what it will receive in federal accelerated cleanup funds.

And with roughly $40 million remaining in the $800 million plan meant to speed cleanup completion dates, SRS would be left to split the difference with much smaller installations in four other states.

South Carolina has said about $300 million will be necessary to accelerate the cleanups at SRS.

Observers say, both on and off the record, that defiance by Gov. Jim Hodges over the issue of plutonium shipments appears to be related to the postponed announcement, with politics on the state and federal level playing a part.

"I think that is a reasonable inference," said political scientist Vincent G. Moscardelli of the University of Massachusetts. A native Southerner, Mr. Moscardelli recently published a paper regarding the political wrangling over long-term plutonium waste storage at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

"It was a legitimate attempt by the governor to make a strong statement that South Carolina is really getting dumped on," he said. "But it has clearly had a political component, too."

He said the impression that the governor was trying to win votes at the expense of the federal government may have ruffled many feathers.

Ralph DiSibio, the president of the Energy and Environmental Business Unit of Washington Group International in Aiken, said he doesn't think the delay by the Department of Energy has been out of vindictiveness.

But he said he can see where the rift with Mr. Hodges - marking a major clash over a federal policy decision - might have forced hesitation on DOE's part.

"I'm sure the Department of Energy will look very cautiously at additional funding or expanded projects for a state whose governor is not very accepting of the policies of the department," he said.

Washington Group is the federal government's contractor in charge of operations at SRS, and Dr. DiSibio said the plutonium shipment controversy has slowed the SRS budget and planning process.

He added that, to the governor's credit, Mr. Hodges signed off on the site's requested amount for funds in a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Health and Environmental Control. The memo was the first step in the process for funding consideration.

But Mr. Hodges gave his signature a little more than a month ago, after the DOE already had announced how it intended to use most of the money.

On March 6, the DOE announced the intended allocation of a major chunk of the funds - $433 million to the Hanford site near Richland, Wash. Other announcements followed.

The DOE made its last major cleanup fund allocation announcement May 31. It added an intended $33 million to its Nevada Test Site cleanup funds.

Joe Davis, the spokesman for the Department of Energy, did not return repeated telephone calls over the past week seeking comment on the issue.

The governor's office did respond, however.

"I am aware of nothing supporting (an intentional delay of funds)," spokesman Morton Brilliant said. "We would prefer to think the Department of Energy is honorable. ... But it sounds like they have decided to give cleanup money to every other state and decided to consolidate the world's plutonium in South Carolina."

A Washington source familiar with the negotiations among federal agencies and congressmen said the Department of Energy has requested and likely will receive about $300 million more from the Office of Management and Budget to add to the $800 million accelerated cleanup pool.

The source said a main part of the request is to get SRS closer to the funding level necessary to substantially speed up work.

Dr. DiSibio noted that Congress will have the ultimate say, and the power of South Carolina's congressional delegation should not be underestimated.

"The final distribution will result from the congressional money committees," he said. "It is not atypical for them to make appropriate adjustments. And the South Carolina delegation is clearly interested in what our final numbers will be."

Reach Eric Williamson at (803) 279-6895 or eric.williamson@augustachronicle.com.