Notices about possible layoffs have been sent to some 1,400 employees of Fluor B&W Portsmouth working on the Decommissioning and Decontamination (D&D) project at the Piketon uranium plant, a move that could threaten the economy across much of southern Ohio.
On Thursday morning, project director Dennis Carr issued a memorandum to the workforce and met with managers and supervisors to let them know that Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act letters were being sent out warning of possible future layoffs due to a reduction in the anticipated budget for fiscal year 2015. Workers at the Piketon plant come from across many areas of southern Ohio, including Highland County.
In accordance with the WARN Act, Fluor B&W Portsmouth must send out a memorandum as their advance notice of a possible “mass layoff” or “plant closing” as defined under the WARN Act which is based on the layoff of more than 500 employees or one-third of its workforce.
Earlier in the week, U.S. Senators Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown sent a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz requesting an official meeting to discuss the long-term viability and ongoing progress of the project at Piketon.
The letter was sent in reaction to correspondence Portman and Brown had received from workers at the site and local community leaders expressing concern with the funding situation for the project and over rumors that WARN Act notices may be forthcoming.
After the WARN notice was sent, Portman issued a statement saying, “Today’s announcement that nearly 700 employees at the Piketon site could be laid-off by October of this year represents a broken commitment to the Piketon plant, to the workers and the thousands of others in the community who will be negatively affected, and to the taxpayers who will end up paying more for this necessary cleanup.
“I would urge the Obama Administration to heed the advice from President Obama in 2008, when he wrote, ‘The failure to clean up this site quickly will delay future economic development opportunities and only add additional mortgage costs and pose undue environmental risks.’”
Earlier this week, Portman said he met with USW Local 689 president Herman Potter and maintenance representative Keith Hammond to discuss his efforts to the accelerated cleanup and reindustrialization of the Piketon site.
DOE uses cleanup funding to pay for the D&D work, and that funding comes primarily from two sources. The primary source is funding from Uranium Barter, which is the sale of stockpiled uranium on the open market. That funding accounts for approximately 70 percent of the funding.
The price of uranium over the last several years has gone down significantly because of several factors, including demand as a result of circumstances such as the tsunami and the subsequent Fukishuma plant incident in 2010, and the presence of more uranium now on the market. The other source of funding is from appropriation of funds by Congress and, like uranium prices, they are lower in the 2015 budget as well.
“We’re looking square at about $110 million funding shortfall coming in fiscal year 2015,” director of communications Jeff Wagner said. “Our normal funding for the site is about $340 million. It fluctuates because of barter and because of appropriations. When we look ahead at FY 15, based on what the current market value is for uranium and based on what the president’s budget appropriations will be from Congress, that’s the number.”
Wagner said that in preparation for that, Fluor B&W Portsmouth needs to be ready for what lies ahead in 2015 since a large chunk of the operating funds go toward salaries.
“So when you look at the numbers and the kind of impact that has, that’s when you get into WARN phase, and that would affect over 33 percent of our workforce,” Wagner said.
All of these factors add up to possible layoffs unless additional funding is found in the next 90 days.
Carr said Portman and Brown remain in contact with the DOE to see if additional funds can be found to avert an actual layoffs. The senators and the company would most likely like to see the funding based on appropriations which would be less volatile than having funding based primarily on uranium prices.
Rob Nichols of Governor John Kasich’s Office released a statement saying, “We wish the Obama Administration weren’t taking this action. Unfortunately this is just another example of the Administration’s broken promises on Piketon. The state is working with the congressional delegation on the right next steps and will also be quickly sending a state team to Piketon to help workers understand their rights and benefits, and we’ll stay engaged for as long as necessary.”
Civitas Media asked about the window of opportunity before any actual layoffs would occur.
“What we will do first according to our DOE approved Workforce Restructuring Plan, before you can have any involuntary actions, you offer voluntary separations,” Wagner said. “So we will open a window for voluntary separations within the next week. We will actively seek those who want to leave the job and take another opportunity - maybe they want to retire - there is a reason to voluntarily separate from the site.”
Those people who choose voluntary separation would leave by the end of September.
“Then, if it were necessary to do involuntary separations, they would happen in two phases,” Wagner said. “One phase would begin in October and the second phase by the end of November.”
Fluor B&W Portsmouth officials were quick to clarify there are no layoffs ordered at this time, and the D&D project is not to be confused with the RD&D project.
“Dennis Carr has stressed we still have a lot of game to play here. We’re very hopeful that we can get the funds,” Wagner said. “But if it is down below $110 million, there’s going to be some job impact.”