Originally created 04/26/06

Budget cut might force SRS layoffs



AIKEN - Next year's proposed federal budget for Savannah River Site - almost $100 million leaner than this year's - is fueling concerns about possible work stoppages and layoffs.

The site's environmental budget would drop 8 percent, from $1.178 billion to $1.08 billion, if Congress passes the fiscal 2007 budget President Bush proposed in February.

"There's really only two ways they can go ... slow projects down or let people go," said Joe Ortaldo, a member of the SRS Citizens Advisory Board, which monitors the nuclear reservation.

The advisory board has expressed particular concern over the amount of money allocated to clean up 36 million gallons of radioactive waste at the site, the hazard with the most potential for danger at the site.

The Energy Department has proposed an increase of $32.6 million for the project. But in a formal recommendation last month, the advisory board questioned whether it is enough to take care of the Salt Waste Processing Facility. The factory, crucial to getting radioactive waste out of storage tanks, has been delayed by two years.

To provide the increase to handle liquid waste, the Energy Department has proposed slashing $26.6 million in funding to ship less hazardous solid waste out of the site. Officials also say the decommissioning of outdated buildings at the site would slow down next year under the proposed budget, possibly affecting the work force.

"There will be people impacts unless there is some additional funding provided," said Ernie Chaput, a former Energy Department deputy director at SRS who helped craft the site's budgets before retiring in 1996.

After reviewing the federal agency's proposed plans for next year, Mr. Chaput estimated the site would be short between $150 million and $200 million.

"There's some work that needs to be done that they're not pursuing aggressively enough," he said. And "the sooner you complete this job, the less it's going to cost."

The Energy Department's top official at SRS now, manager Jeff Allison, said the cleanup of high level waste would "remain fully funded" but that the full impact of a potential $100 million decrease is still being studied.

"We haven't made any decisions," he said. "Obviously, living with $100 million less would be pretty difficult."

SRS continually has cut jobs in the past decade, dropping employment from about 25,000 to roughly 10,000.

The president's proposed budget is only a blueprint for Congress, which will spend weeks studying it and making changes before it is passed.

U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, both Republicans from South Carolina, have said they will fight to boost the SRS budget.

"Lindsey is concerned about the budget numbers in the coming year," spokesman Kevin Bishop said. "He wants to keep the cleanup moving."

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.

HOW SRS STACKS UP

SRS has the second-biggest budget within the Department of Energy complex, behind the Hanford site in Washington state. But that amount would decrease next year under President Bush's proposed budget. Here's how the site would fare compared to some others:

DOE
complex
Fiscal Year
2006
Proposal 2007
budget
Percent
change
SRS $1.178 billion $1.08 billion -8 percent
Hanford $1.7 billion $1.8 billion 6 percent
Oak Ridge $485 million $471 million -3 percent
Idaho $538 million $519 million -3.4 percent

SOURCE: SRS Citizens Advisory Board