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Federal measure delays layoffs at Ohio uranium site cleanup; long-term funding concerns remain


COLUMBUS, Ohio — A funding measure approved this week by Congress would at least postpone hundreds of layoffs for workers handling decontamination and decommissioning of a Cold War-era uranium plant in southern Ohio.

The measure sent to President Barack Obama funds the government after the budget year ends Sept. 30. It included $13.7 million to continue cleanup of the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon until December, Republican Sen. Rob Portman said in a statement Friday.

The facility, roughly 60 miles south of Columbus, produced enriched uranium until 2001. The cleanup employs about 1,900 people.

Over 600 layoffs were anticipated in October and November because of funding problems. The contractor leading the cleanup, Fluor-B&W Portsmouth, and the U.S. Department of Energy, which owns the plant, said those job cuts might be necessary because uranium transfers fund much of the work but uranium prices dropped and the next proposed budget appropriation wouldn't make up the shortfall.

Pike County Commissioner Blaine Beekman said a short-term reprieve breeds some hope for the area but doesn't resolve the continuing funding concerns.

"We don't have any real sense of security, but you fight one battle at a time," he said.

As the news began to percolate Friday, the local union president, Herman Potter of the United Steelworkers Local 689, said he remained concerned about long-term funding.

"There's a guarded optimism," Potter said.

Union officials, local government leaders, members of Ohio's congressional delegation have lobbied for more funding to avoid layoffs, which would be a blow to the project's momentum and a pocket of Ohio with high unemployment rates.

"While I'm relieved we've overcome this immediate hurdle, we will need to revisit funding for D&D operations at the end of the year," Republican Rep. Brad Wenstrup said in a statement. "We face an uphill battle with the administration in the coming months."

A Department of Energy spokesman for the project said the agency is committed to the cleanup and is reviewing the language in the funding legislation as it considers the project's future.

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