The contractor hired to clean up high-level radioactive waste at the Savannah River Site near Aiken is laying off 465 of its 2,200 workers.
The layoffs come just two weeks after the director of South Carolina’s environmental control agency warned the U.S. Energy Department that federal budget cuts could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in fines for not meeting deadlines for the cleanup.
In a letter to the employees released to the news media Thursday, Stuart MacVean, interim president and project manager for contractor Savannah River Remediation, said the workers’ last day will be Sept 27.
Tom Clements, with the environmental watchdog group Friends of the Earth, told The State the layoffs make it impossible for the company to reach its milestone agreements with South Carolina. He added the layoffs were the result of the Department of Energy not asking Congress for enough money for the cleanup in a continuing budget resolution for fiscal year 2014.
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“The layoffs … reveal DOE’s lack of commitment to cleaning up SRS and to reducing the threat presented by dangerous nuclear waste at the site,” he said.
Catherine Templeton, the director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, on Aug. 28 warned the energy department that the budget reductions would make it virtually impossible for SRR to meet more than 30 milestones for cleaning up high-level radioactive liquid waste stored in degrading, underground tanks.
In a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz obtained by The Associated Press, Templeton also warned that the agency will fully enforce the deadlines.
The fines will top $154 million if a waste processing facility doesn’t open in October 2015, she said, adding that the agency will not waive daily fines of $105,000 that have accrued since 2011, when the agency granted an extension. Those fines will continue until opening day, the director said, and another extension won’t be granted.
Templeton called the waste stored in the site’s aging tanks the single largest environmental threat in South Carolina.
During the Cold War, the 310-square-mile complex that encompasses parts of Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale counties produced plutonium and tritium for atomic bombs. After years of cleanup efforts at the site, 37 million gallons of waste remain in 49 underground tanks.
Officials say the large processing facility is needed to reach cleanup goals. Under a joint agreement among the state agency, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency, the 20 remaining “non-compliant” tanks that carry a higher risk for leaks must be closed by 2022. Each tank has its own closure date. A separate consent order signed with the state in 1995 sets the deadline for all of the high-level waste to be treated by 2028. The Department of Energy agreed to fines of $3,000 daily for missing that date
The laid off SRR employees will receive two weeks’ pay in lieu of notice and a severance payment equal to one week’s pay for each full year of eligibility service up to a maximum of 26 weeks, MacVean wrote to the workers.
Medical coverage can be continued under the DOE Displaced Worker Medical Benefit Program or Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, the letter said.
“I regret that we have to take this step, but I encourage you to avoid the distractions that these work force changes can cause,” MacVean wrote. “We ask that you continue to focus on achievement of this critical mission, and watch out for each other’s safety.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.