DOE cuts furlough time for 1,800 at Hanford

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldApril 4, 2013 

The Department of Energy is cutting the furlough time for about 1,800 Hanford workers from five weeks to one week, employees were told late Thursday afternoon.

The furloughs -- paid or unpaid leave -- were required to meet federal budget cuts, called sequestration.

However, the 235 mostly union workers who were laid off because of sequestration in March will not get their jobs back.

In addition, furloughs for Washington River Protection Solutions have not been reduced. About 900 of its workers still must take 2.5 to 6.5 weeks of leave to reduce Hanford spending.

Washington River Protection Solutions is under DOE's Hanford office, the Office of River Protection.

But the change of plans was good news for the employees of contractors planning furloughs under the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office -- CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. and Mission Support Alliance.

The DOE Richland Operations Office is moving about $5 million out of non-cleanup accounts to reduce the amount of money that must be saved by furloughs, said DOE spokesman Cameron Hardy. The money comes from a wide range of accounts, including janitorial, laundry, utilities and record management, he said.

However, detailed information was not available Thursday.

"I understand that the roughly $5-6 million needed to shorten these furloughs is coming from RL (Richland Operations Office) accounts that are not directly involved in cleanup activities," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., in a statement. "I've asked DOE for additional information about these accounts and for precise details about where the money is coming from."

Although surprised by the announcement, Hastings said he is hopeful it will provide a greater degree of certainty for workers facing potential furloughs and help cleanup progress.

The Richland Operations Office had an overall cut of $79 million to be made by the end of September. It is responsible for all work at the Hanford nuclear reservation except management of underground tanks holding 56 million gallons of radioactive waste and the vitrification plant being built to treat the waste.

Those projects are the responsibility of the Office of River Protection, which is cutting $92 million.

The Richland Operations Office was required to come up with a sequestration plan early in March, but Congress did not extend a continuing resolution to set the DOE budget for the remainder of the fiscal year until March 27, Hardy said. A continuing resolution was needed because Congress did not pass a budget for the year.

The continuing resolution, as expected, continued spending for the Richland Operations Office at the same level as the first six months of the current fiscal year.

"The department maintained a conservative budget approach earlier in the year to better enable adequate funding for the balance of the year," CH2M Hill and Mission Support Alliance said in their message to employees. "Based on conservative allocation and the final funding for fiscal year 2013, we have been able to revise our furlough plan."

The one week of furlough should be adequate if workers also take the normal amount of vacation time this summer, the memo said.

For workers with enough vacation time, none of the leave will be without pay.

Only nonunion employees are being furloughed because of restrictions in collective bargaining agreements, and costs to employ union workers have been cut through layoffs. Subcontracted work also has been cut to reduce the DOE budget.

CH2M Hill and Mission Support Alliance will continue to look for efficiencies, they said in their messages to employees.

CH2M Hill is responsible for environmental cleanup of central Hanford and contaminated groundwater. Because of sequestration, some work will be slowed to remove glove boxes and other highly contaminated equipment from the Plutonium Finishing Plant and to prepare for the retrieval of radioactive sludge from the K West Basin. CH2M Hill also will delay drilling additional wells to pump contaminated water out of the ground for treatment.

While sequestration still will slow CH2M Hill projects, work that continues will not be delayed because engineering, safety, project controls and administration employees are no longer taking extended time off, Hardy said.

Mission Support Alliance provides support services, including utilities, training and information technology, across the Hanford nuclear reservation.

A third contractor under the Richland Operations Office, Washington Closure Hanford, was not planning furloughs.

It is responsible for completing most cleanup along the Columbia River in 2015.

Washington River Protection Solutions, where workers still must take up to 6.5 weeks of furlough, is responsible for the Hanford tank farms, where sequestration has slowed retrieval of waste from leak-prone underground tanks. In February, six tanks were discovered to be leaking radioactive waste.

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