UPDATED, 4:55 P.M., OCT. 16:
The Department of Energy sent a message to Hanford workers on Wednesday afternoon saying furloughs are not expected if Congress passes a federal funding bill by the end of this week. Here is the text of that message:
Department of Energy
RL No.: 14-0008
Richland Operations Office
To: ALL HANFORD SITE EMPLOYEES
Subject: UPDATE ON GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN
We understand the uncertainties you are experiencing due to the ongoing lapse in appropriation. I want to assure you that one of our top priorities is providing information on what to expect. At the same time, the situation in Congress is changing by the hour.
Should Congress enact an appropriation this week, we do not anticipate any temporary releases from work will be necessary.
Unless advised by your management, contractor employees are expected to continue to report to work.
Despite the distractions going on around us, we must all remain focused on the tasks at hand and remain vigilant for the safety and the well-being of each other. When further information becomes available, we will pass it along.
UPDATED, 11:30 A.M., OCT. 16:
RICHLAND, Wash. -- The men and women who work for the federal government’s contractors at Hanford have been told most of them could be sent home on Friday because of the government shutdown.
The plan would be to reduce the workforce to bare minimums designed to keep the nuclear waste facility safe, but daily maintenance and other environmental programs would be suspended.
On Tuesday, 2,300 workers who work for five different contractors were informed they would not be laid off or put on furlough, but would be “released from work until further notice.”
Written notices communicating this action were expected on Wednesday, but a union official representing Hanford workers learned Wednesday morning that has been put on hold.
According to David E. Molnaa of the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council (HAMTC) , the Department of Energy in Washington, DC, passed word to Richland DOE officials Wednesday morning to instruct contractors not to issue the written notices on Wednesday. That news came as news broke that Congress may be close to ending the federal government shutdown.
If the shutdown is not averted, the release from work status at Hanford would go into effect at midnight on October 20. The contractors are required to submit a contingency plan to the U.S. Department of Energy that outlines how they would staff and operate in a reduced capacity. DOE must then approve the plan.
HAMTC, the umbrella labor organization composed of 15 different unions working at Hanford, wrote to its leadership Tuesday to explain that workers would not get traditional layoff benefits as outlined in their collective bargaining agreements because the shutdown amounts to a “release,” not a “lay off.”
“The contractors are being placed in a no-win situation. It's not their fault any more than it is ours or yours. They can't provide benefits because there isn't any money appropriated to pay for those benefits, for anyone. If they did, it would violate federal law. Why isn't there any appropriated money... because of the greedy, selfish, (politicians) in Washington DC,” wrote Molnaa, the HAMTC president.
“This isn't good news for anyone and hopefully this exercise in greed won't happen at all. I would again strongly encourage you to contact your Senators and Congressmen and demand they stop this unnecessary behavior,” said Molnaa.
Hanford workers told KING 5 that in meetings Tuesday they were informed that even if Congress reaches a deal to reopen the government this week, the “release from work” would happen anyway for a minimum of one week and perhaps even two because that’s how long it would take the government to move money into the contractors' accounts.
In addition to being worried about the loss of income for a minimum of a week, workers have safety concerns as well.
“If there’s a major problem, they won’t have the right staffing to deal with it. So, safety-wise this is not a good thing. If there’s a major equipment failure, like an exhauster going down, we won’t have the staffing to handle it,” said one worker, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Tank farm exhausters remove flammable gases that gather at the top of the underground nuclear storage tanks. When flammable gases are allowed to build up, it can create a safety hazard such as a hydrogen explosion.
Hanford is one of the largest waste cleanup sites in the nation. Starting in World War II and lasting until the late 1980s, plutonium production at the 586-square-mile reservation fueled the U.S. nuclear arsenal but left behind millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste. A multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar cleanup operation has been hobbled by technical hurdles and debates about whether the waste at the site can be safely processed with current technologies.