Cuts gut ecology research at SRS

NEW ELLENTON - A pair of ferocious alligators live in a fenced pond behind the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, waiting each day for a technician to toss them dead animals for dinner.

For years, scientists have studied the big gators at the ecology lab, a federal research facility widely regarded for its biology work.

But after five decades of examining how a nuclear weapons site affects animals, plants and the landscape, scientists are ending scores of research projects at the ecology lab.

Budget cuts last year forced the lab's director to lay off more than 40 scientists and technicians who conducted studies at the Savannah River Site. The cuts have affected an array of wildlife research projects.

The U.S. Department of Energy on Wednesday announced further cuts that threaten to eliminate most, if not all, of the agency's funding for environmental research at SRS.

The Energy Department has cut the lab's budget from nearly $8 million two years ago to about $1 million for the next fiscal year. Staff has been cut by a third to about 100.

Scientists say it's a financial crisis and question whether the ecology lab will serve any useful purpose after years of national acclaim.

"This is an enormous mistake," said 16-year ecology lab veteran Chuck Jagoe, who quit his research on mercury contamination last year because the money dried up. "The amount of environmental knowledge we obtained for the amount of money spent was a very good investment."

Jim Giusti, a spokesman for the Energy Department, said his agency can't afford to fund the ecology lab at previous levels. He said that doesn't preclude continuing research, but scientists will have to find other funding sources to keep that research going. The Energy Department was the lab's major underwriter, although the University of Georgia provided a small percentage of its budget.

"We are working now to find other sources from other agencies and nonfederal sources for their funding," Giusti said.

Paul Bertsch, director of the Savannah River Ecology Lab, confirmed the Energy Department said it would provide about $4 million next year for the lab. But as an agreement appeared imminent, the agency changed direction and cut that to $1 million, said Laura Janacek, the lab's administrative finance director.

Bertsch said he did not know why department officials changed their minds, but said the latest round of budget reductions are severe. It takes more than $1 million just to maintain the research lab each year, not including money for research, according to the University of Georgia, which operates the lab.

"We've had to reduce a lot of things," he said.

Since its founding in 1951, the Savannah River Ecology Lab has found examples of how pollution from SRS hurt wildlife on its 300-square-mile site, including amphibians with deformities traced to contamination.

Even so, many species remained healthy and thrived as forests grew and disturbance from people was limited. In effect, the site has become a wildlife preserve big enough to conduct many studies that would be difficult elsewhere.

Scientists at the ecology lab have published about 3,000 research studies and more than 50 books. They have become some of the world's leading authorities on isolated wetlands, amphibians and reptiles, and soil contamination.

Some recent research projects, however, have been abandoned. Since 2005, scientists say they have halted or failed to start research that:

* Examines the continued effect that polluted coal ponds have on amphibians. The research could have guided power companies on whether to use ponds as disposal sites for coal ash waste. Past research found frog tadpoles with deformed mouths in coal ash ponds.

* Studies of how the invasion of coyotes from the West is affecting bobcats native to South Carolina and Georgia. If coyotes are out-competing bobcats for food, that could tell the state whether it needs to improve habitat to help bobcats.

* Looks at whether mercury pollution affects wetlands, streams or ponds differently. Some evidence suggests organisms in swamps are more prone to mercury contamination than those in flowing creeks. This could guide regulators and consultants on how to build artificial wetlands.

More knowledge about mercury also could tell environmental regulators how strictly to control mercury emissions from industrial plants. Those emissions are believed to be a source of mercury contamination in fish throughout South Carolina's coastal plain.

Jagoe, a mercury researcher, said last year's budget cuts cost him his research job at the ecology lab. The cuts also curtailed studies that were making the lab the world's foremost authority on toxins in reptiles.

The lab "was poised to become a major center for knowledge about the pollutant effects in reptiles," he said. "That expertise is basically gone."

Jagoe and I. Lehr Brisbin, a wildlife ecologist who retired from the lab last year, blamed the Bush administration for failing to recognize the importance of scientific research the lab provides.

"This will no longer be an ecological research place for things like bobcats, foxes, deer and waterfowl," Brisbin said. "What we lose is one of the most magnificent pieces of research wildlife habitat in the East, if not the nation."

Some members of the South Carolina and Georgia congressional delegations are concerned about cutting funding too drastically at SRS.

Last year, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., helped secure $4.3 million to continue the Ecology Laboratory's work after the Energy Department proposed cutting all money.

"The ecology lab is a national treasure and an important piece of the SRS community," he said.


Of note about the Savannah River Ecology Lab staff and their projects:

* Reptile expert Whit Gibbons has been quoted in national publications and featured on the National Geographic Channel.

* Geologist Chris Romanek was among a team of scientists who found evidence of life on Mars by tracing it to a rock found in Antarctica.

Researchers at the ecology lab:

* Have discovered higher mercury levels in some alligators at the Savannah River Site than in alligators anywhere else in the world

* Learned that some of the nation's highest diversity of plants and animals exists at Savannah River

* Verified the importance of seasonal wetlands to thriving populations of amphibians

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.