From an economic development standpoint, the past 18 months have been exceptionally good. More than $1.35 billion has been invested in Aiken County, and that will lead to 1,000 new jobs being created in some of our manufacturing companies.
But all of that success could be wiped away by the U.S. Department of Energy and their plan to go back on a promise that they made to Aiken County years ago. This community sacrificed and played a crucial part in helping win the Cold War, and we were promised that the Savannah River Site would be cleaned up and not be left with the legacies of winning that war.
However due to budget issues, we are now on the verge of losing thousands of jobs. Without adequate funding to continue the missions at SRS, the legacy waste will still remain here.
That is a summary of what will happen, but let me try to break this complex matter down.
Since April 1, 2,500 of our friends and neighbors who are employed by SRNS, are working 32-hour weeks, and that has led to pay reductions of 20 percent to reflect the shorter work hours. Without a reprogramming of funds, this will continue until Sept. 30.
What does this mean if you do not work for SRNS? It means less money in those employees pockets that is then not spent throughout our community. Our local businesses are feeling the pinch, and that could potentially lead to job losses outside the SRS gates, further robbing our community of spending power.
To complicate matters, some DOE dollars are waiting for reprogramming, or moved from one account to another. This process is hung up in The White House’s Office of Management and Budget. If these dollars are not reprogrammed by May 22, then 700 to 900 SRNS employees will be laid off on June 1 until Sept. 30, and 1.600 to 1,800 employees will continue on reduced 32-hour work weeks. This will further stress family pocketbooks, whether they work for SRNS or work for local businesses.
In dollars and cents, the above scenario will mean about $3.4 million per week that doesn’t go to affected employees, which in turn does not get spent in our community. Numbers like this are hard to grasp, but they mean drastic changes locally, whether it becomes less spent at our local businesses or our less given to local charities.
The silver lining in this dark cloud is that all of this goes away with the beginning of the new Federal fiscal year on Oct 1. In the meantime, how many of those affected employees will leave to seek employment else outside of Aiken County, resulting in a dramatic loss of intellectual capacity as well as spending capacity in the area?
While Oct. 1 brings things back to normal for SRNS, another contractor is scheduled to be affected in the proposed 2013-2014 DOE budget. Savannah River Remediation, the liquid waste contractor, will be faced with laying off hundreds of employees. This will continue to ripple outside the SRS gates just as we are now experiencing.
SRR will still be able to stabilize the Cold War legacy waste, but not at the rate they currently are achieving.
SRR has been meeting all of the legal Federal Facility Agreement requirements up to this point. If the next budget is approved as presented, all of those requirements will be missed. And environmental risk increases every day that the waste program is slowed. This raises the likelihood that a tank waste leak could occur in the future.
These forecasts do not take into account what is occurring at MOX. The U.S. and Russia have treaties in place to safely and economically dispose of these materials for use in commercial nuclear reactors. To not continue the MOX project would be in direct violation of these treaties and the promise that DOE made to Aiken County. It would compound the economic problem by reducing the thousands of construction jobs that now exist and the promise our area had for 800 new jobs when MOX is operational.
This is the “perfect storm” that our region is facing. While currently this is a local issue, it morphs into a statewide issue and national issue quickly. What can we do as citizens of Aiken County? Let your voice be heard by the governor, S.C. House and Senate members as well as your U.S. Congressmen and Senators.
Aiken County is a jewel in South Carolina and the economic blow that comes with allowing things we do not want to remain will be detrimental to our area. Don’t let DOE break their promise.
Will Williams is the executive director for the Economic Development Partnership.