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Lawmakers say 2016 budget request for cleanup of uranium plant in southern Ohio falls short


WASHINGTON — The Obama administration's budget request for the decontamination and decommissioning of a Cold War-era uranium plant in southern Ohio is drawing concern from lawmakers who say it may not be enough to stave off layoffs and complete the redevelopment.

President Barack Obama is seeking a total of $227 million for the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio, about $48.6 million less than what Congress provided in fiscal year 2015.

The Energy Department, which runs the cleanup, says it hopes to make up the funding shortfall through a barter program, in which the government sells uranium on the open market.

But several Ohio lawmakers say that continues to create substantial uncertainty due to fluctuating uranium prices. Last December, hundreds of people at the 1,800-employee plant braced for layoffs until Congress approved a last-minute cash infusion. The plant offers some of the best-paying jobs in an area of high unemployment.

"The president's budget proposal continues to shortchange southern Ohio, marked by more uncertainty and half steps towards cleaning up Piketon," said U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, also said he was disappointed by the level of funding.

"This failure to provide the funding needed to maintain the accelerated cleanup schedule will not only threaten jobs in southern Ohio, but could also cost the federal government billions of dollars by extending the length of the cleanup," he said.

Mark Whitney, acting assistant secretary in the department's Office of Environmental Management, said he believed the barter program could raise another $160 million to $180 million for the cleanup. But he also acknowledged the uncertainty. "We're in a constrained funding environment across the government," Whitney said.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said the administration must do more to increase funding. Currently the request includes $131 million for operational activities and an increase of $30 million for construction of an on-site disposal cell to accept decontamination and decommissioning debris.

"I will continue to fight to ensure the necessary funding to complete site cleanup on schedule, protect the environment and set the stage for redevelopment and reuse," he said.

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