- Associated Press - Thursday, July 17, 2014

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The contractor leading decontamination and decommissioning work at a Cold War-era uranium plant in southern Ohio anticipates up to 675 layoffs beginning in October because of funding-related problems, which could be a blow to the project’s momentum and a pocket of the state with high unemployment rates.

Fluor-B&W; Portsmouth on Thursday announced the potential layoffs for some of the 1,900 people employed through the project to clean up the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, roughly 60 miles south of Columbus. The plant produced enriched uranium until 2001, and the work to fully prepare the site for possible redevelopment was expected to take decades.

The contractor and the U.S. Department of Energy, which owns the plant, said layoffs might be necessary because uranium transfers fund much of the cleanup but uranium prices have dropped, and the proposed federal budget appropriation for the next fiscal year wouldn’t make up for that decrease.

The anticipated difference in funding is about $110 million, Fluor spokesman Jason Lovins said.

If that funding scenario holds, Fluor anticipates layoffs for up to 505 of its workers and 170 affiliate and subcontractor employees. The company explained the situation to managers and workers earlier Thursday, Fluor public affairs manager Jeff Wagner said.

“We didn’t want them to lose hope either - this is still very early in the process - but we want them to be informed,” Wagner said.

He said Fluor’s workforce reduction probably would occur in three phases, with an opportunity for voluntary departures, such as retirements, then layoffs in October and a possible second round by late November.

That would cut some of the best-paying jobs in Pike County and have negative effects for residents and businesses in neighboring Jackson, Ross and Scioto counties, Pike County Commissioner Blaine Beekman said earlier this week.

“That would be devastating to this county,” Beekman said.

Pike County’s unemployment rate of 8.4 percent in May was the second-highest among Ohio’s 88 counties. Scioto County ranked fourth at 7.7 percent, and Jackson County was seventh at 7.1 percent.

The company and local officials have pressed for help from Ohio’s congressional delegation to lobby for funding. Beekman said Pike County officials recently were in Washington to visit some of those lawmakers, who have been supportive of continued funding for the site.

“We’re county commissioners. These are United States senators and congressmen. If they’re not having a lot of success … we’re not going to convince the secretary of energy to give them the money,” Beekman said. “We just go and beg him.”

In a letter last week, Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman called on the U.S. energy secretary to provide more answers about the project’s current and anticipated funding.

The department will formally respond to the letter and expects Fluor “will make certain adjustments in the current workforce to ensure safe, efficient execution of priority work activities and programmatic requirements” for the project, Brad Mitzelfelt, a department spokesman from the regional public office, said in an email.

The state will soon send a team to Piketon to help workers understand their rights and benefits, Republican Gov. John Kasich’s spokesman, Rob Nichols, said in an email.

“Unfortunately this is just another example of the (Obama) administration’s broken promises on Piketon,” he said.

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