At Hanford, 1,000 workers would face 6 weeks unpaid time if federal cuts happen, Democrats say

Hanford would place more than 1,000 workers on unpaid leave for about six weeks if the automatic federal budget cuts known as “sequestration” occur March 1, according to a report by the House Appropriations Committee Democrats.

Hanford has close to 9,000 workers.

Hanford and other DOE defense sites undergoing environmental cleanup would be forced to suspend and/or delay cleanup activities and shut down facilities, the report said. Affected facilities would be placed in a safe standby condition.

At Hanford, the retrieval of radioactive waste from leak-prone underground tanks would be delayed, the report said. In addition, disposition of the waste would be delayed, evidently a reference to work to build the $12.2 billion vitrification plant to treat the waste. Decontamination projects at Hanford also would be delayed.

Other DOE defense sites could be hit harder. The Savannah River, S.C., site would furlough more than 1,000 workers for about four months, the report said. About 4,000 to 5,000 workers across the nation would be affected.

Across the DOE defense environmental cleanup project, work toward up to 30 legal deadlines would be delayed, which could result in significant fines and penalties.

March 1

Automatic across-the-board budget cuts of $85 billion go into effect March 1 unless Congress acts. Republicans and Democrats are embroiled in a bitter fight over how best to address the federal deficit. The cuts were set to begin Jan. 2, but were delayed for three months through passage of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012.

The report from the Democrats is the most detailed scenario released publicly for sequestration at Hanford.

DOE has referred most Herald questions about Hanford to the Office of Management and Budget, which has referred questions back to DOE. Both offices have released little information.

The White House on Feb. 8 released what it called a fact sheet outlining sequestration effects. It said that cuts for defense programs would be about 8 percent and cuts for nondefense programs would be about 5 percent.

However, because the cuts must be made only during the last seven months of fiscal 2013, the effective percentage reductions will be approximately 9 percent for nondefense programs and 13 percent for defense programs, the White House said.

“The effects of sequestration are particularly damaging because, by law, they apply equally to each program, project and activity within an account, thereby severely constraining our ability to prioritize and make tradeoffs among activities under reduced funding scenarios,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a Feb. 1 letter to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, chairwoman of the Committee on Appropriations.

Sequestration would curtail progress in environmental cleanup at sites such as Hanford, Chu said in the letter. Legal deadlines would be put at risk, “calling into question the federal government’s commitment to protect human health and the environment.”

Earlier this month, DOE indicated it would consider placing employees on furlough — a temporary unpaid leave — or take other actions to slash personnel costs across the nation. A memo from Daniel Poneman, deputy energy secretary, also said that DOE would closely examine contracts for savings.