When a new president is elected, there is, for a while, a collective holding of the breath, as those involved in an issue attempt to find out how that president will deal with the problem, and in this area, that question concerns the decommissioning and decontamination (D&D) of the Department of Energy site at Piketon, known as the PORTS Site.
One of the people watching it closely is Jason Kester, Director of the Southern Ohio Port Authority (SOPA) who spends seemingly every working hour dealing with economic development. The Daily Times has been in communication with Kester and pressed him about what he is anticipating come January 20.
“I hope there is an infrastructure component to President-Elect Trump’s agenda,” Kester said. “Now, will that be an investment in transportation assets, such as roads, docks, airports, etc.? Or utilities like sewer, water and broadband? Or how it will be implemented like more points for matching funds, or private investment, or rural versus urban? Or how they score the grant applications and what type of applications they take – will be key.”
The project, in recent months, has been on life-support with each continuing resolution (CR) giving it just enough funding to prevent layoffs and keep it afloat.
Kester said he has been in regular contact with Fluor-BWXT (the contractor) and the Washington Congressional delegations and has formed an insight that he shared with the Times.
“Our project is the only project to rely on the barter of uranium to fund the clean-up. Initially, my understanding is that the site was not in line to receive any clean-up dollars and the barter program was a way to get the process started in the absence of other federal funding streams,” Kester said. “However, the market price of uranium has fallen dramatically since 2012. This has caused significant instability in the funding of the clean-up.”
Kester said current continuing resolutions are funded based on the previous budget (2016) when uranium prices were more stable than today.
“The most recent discussions I’ve had was there’s ‘a good chance’ layoffs will be avoided as part of the December-(possibly March) CR. However, since the CR is based on 2016 funding levels and uranium prices there’s a potential short-fall,” Kester said. “Thus, to avoid the layoffs the Congressional delegation has to get an increase in funding, i.e., if it’s just funded at 2016 levels there will be lay-offs, if it’s funded at the 2016 and forward level then layoffs will be avoided. My sources in D.C. think there’s ‘a good chance’ we’ll be funded at the 2016 and forward level. But, nothing is for sure.”
Kester says that is just the beginning of the problem. He said Congress tried to avoid the ebbs and flows of the uranium market and created a 2017 budget with uranium forecasted at $87 per kilogram, which seemed very reasonable. But he went on to say, uranium has dropped even more than expected and is now trading at $40 a kilogram. Kester said that is what creates a very significant shortfall for 2017 – something possibly in the $100 million and 1,000 jobs, out of 1,800, range.
He told the Times there is an additional consideration.
“Currently we can sell 1,600 metric tons of uranium per year, amounting to 400 per quarter, to assist in funding the clean-up,” Kester said. “However, due to the prices and the market when the current ‘secretarial determination’ expires in May 2017 – we expect a reduction in the 1,600 ton rule, which will further reduce site funding.”
What can the people of the southern Ohio area do to take part in the process?
“What we as a community need to work towards is a consistent funding stream which will allow us to avoid the ups and downs of the current funding structure. One approach could be a ‘closure fund’ which was used at Fernald and other DOE sites,” Kester said. “It allocates a specific dollar amount to the clean-up, it has specific timing requirements to complete tasks/projects, and to be eligible for the program certain determinations and studies have to be completed, which have already been done at the PORTS site.”
He said the Site Specific Advisory Board (SSAB) passed a resolution advocating for just such an approach in October.
“Now, the closure fund comes with its own geo-political issues, but, how ever we do it, having a consistent funding stream that allows for the D&D to continue and for the disposal cell to be constructed is the approach our entire community should be advocating for,” Kester said. “We need to re-industrialize the site sooner rather than later.”
Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.