SRS workers brace for cuts in hours

The Associated PressMarch 5, 2013 

Savannah River Site

US DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY

Effects of massive federal budget cuts are becoming apparent in South Carolina as agencies prepare to slash costs.

Workers at Savannah River Site near Aiken were told Monday they would be working reduced schedules starting in April because of the cuts, while other employees there will be laid off, at least temporarily.

On the coast, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official warned Tuesday that the $300 million effort to deepen the Charleston Harbor shipping channel could be delayed by government spending cuts.

SRS officials will notify workers whose hours are being cut by March 15, said Dwayne Wilson, president and CEO of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the largest contractor at the old nuclear weapons plant. Hours will be reduced to 32 hours per week from 40 hours.

Workers who will lose their jobs, at least temporarily, will be notified next week, Wilson said.

“Due to the uncertain and potential fluctuating amount of funding which may be available to SRNS, further furloughs may be necessary,” he said.

Officials say they don’t know how long the reductions will be in place.

An analysis for a congressional committee last month indicated furloughs for about 1,000 employees could last about four months.

The cuts could force the suspension of plutonium processing, delay in the handling of liquid waste in underground tanks and stop radioactive waste shipments from South Carolina to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, the report said.

Meanwhile, the deepening of the Charleston Harbor shipping channel – a project considered crucial to the state’s economy – has been on the fast track in recent months.

“All I can tell you is that there is a potential our efforts could be delayed in the Charleston Harbor deepening study,” Lt. Col. Ed Chamberlayne told reporters.

He said the spending cuts, also called sequestration, could lead to furloughs among the 250 district employees. That, he said, would mean fewer people to work on the studies needed for the harbor project, potentially delaying it.

Maritime interests want the harbor deepened from its current 45 feet to 50 feet to accommodate a new generation of larger container ships that will be calling when the Panama Canal is deepened in 2014.

Last year, the Obama administration designated Charleston and four other harbor projects as nationally significant and allowed required studies to be expedited. Originally, the deepening work wasn’t expected to be completed until 2024. But with the project on the fast track, that date was moved up to 2019.

A draft environmental impact statement on the deepening work is expected by next year. But Chamberlayne said that the spending cuts could delay that timetable.

“We will prioritize things in the district that could be impacted by furloughs, sequestration and budget cuts,” he said, adding that while the harbor project is a top priority “that doesn’t mean it’s safe.”

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