Portsmouth Site Undergoes Changes

The former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant site in Piketon, Ohio, has over the last year weathered a wave of changes, including a possible new contractor, employee buyouts, an on-site waste disposal facility and the election of a former local union president.

The Department of Energy (DOE) had until April 24 to decide whether to exercise a 22-month option to keep Portsmouth Mission Alliance, LLC (PMA) as the infrastructure support contractor for the Piketon site.

PMA is a joint venture between North Wind and Swift and Staley. The company has a $140 million contract with DOE that began in March 2016 and will continue through mid-January 2021 if DOE approves the extension.

PMA’s scope of work includes surveillance, maintenance, and repair of facilities; telecommunications and computing; safeguards and security; records and property management, and grounds and road maintenance.

The USW represents 72 PMA employees and is in negotiations over economic issues in the contract.

Employee Buyouts

The site’s cleanup contractor, Fluor-BWXT Portsmouth LLC (FBP), extended an employee buyout plan originally offered last December. The Self-Select Voluntary Separation Program allowed up to 75 workers to voluntarily leave their jobs in exchange for a separation payment.

Now, another 29 employees can take advantage of the program. Those who decide to leave will work their last day for Fluor on May 30.

A Fluor spokesman told the media that significant clean-up progress had been made in deactivation work, prompting the focus to include demolition of buildings and remediation of the site. He said the separation program allows FBP to realign the existing labor work force skill sets to upcoming demolition activities.

USW-represented workers perform the deactivation work, but the spokesman said FBP has no plans for involuntary layoffs. The building trades handle the demolition work.

John Knauff, Local 1-689 President, said the buyouts are a way for DOE and Fluor to reduce the USW work force without a layoff being declared, and to have contractors do the USW work. He said the union’s subcontracting contract language is much stronger if the contractor calls for a layoff.

“In addition, we don’t have a sufficient number of employees to do all of the Decontamination and Decommission (D&D) work necessary to prevent radioactive and hazardous waste from going into the on-site waste disposal cell,” he said. “We need that D&D activity so the site can be reindustrialized.”

On-Site Waste Disposal Cell

Local 1-689 has joined the village of Piketon and other communities in opposing the DOE’s waste disposal cell under construction at the site’s Area D. The cell would handle “low-level” radioactive waste from the demolition of the buildings at the site, and be ready to accept this waste around fiscal year 2021. “Higher-level” waste would still be transported out west for disposal.      

The village of Piketon hired a third party to independently review the environmental studies completed and to verify the data that DOE used in its decision to construct the disposal cell in Area D.  The assessment indicated that fractures in the bedrock could pose a threat to groundwater if the waste cell should leak.

Local 1-689 pointed to the third-party assessment in its resolution of opposition to the onsite disposal cell. The local is also concerned about the lack of criteria for what kind of transuranic waste (waste with man-made radioactive elements heavier than uranium) is put in the cell.

Knauff expressed this reservation in an Aug. 28, 2018, letter to DOE Secretary Rick Perry. He was concerned about the waste from the demolition of the X-326 process building being dumped in the disposal cell.

“There is a large amount of process equipment still in the building containing enriched uranium and other transuranic (normal for that building),” Knauff wrote to Perry. “There are also large quantities of other very hazardous materials such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) remaining in the building, all of which will go uncontrollably into the waste cell if not removed before the building is isolated.”

The local said in its resolution opposing the construction of the waste cell that it expects DOE to ship all waste generated by D&D activities to approved offsite disposal facilities.

Local President’s Goals

Knauff was elected local president last year, and since then he’s set an ambitious plan to move the local forward.

Local Union 1-689 officials (L-R): Vice President Larry E. Thomas, President John Knauff, Safety Representative Jeanne Webster, Division III Operations Grievance Committeeperson Brian Howell, and Safety Representative and Local Treasurer Lou Thompson. Photo credit: Mike Hancock, Local Union 9-562 retiree.

“I’m trying to find a structure for us that allows people to work together and recognize that we have different contracts with different contractors,” he said. “I’m trying to find a way to protect the community going forward so they do not get stuck with a contaminated site. This community has performed a huge service to our national defense. It would be a shame to give them a 100-acre radiologically toxic waste site.”

The former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plan has been a part of Knauff’s life since he was a child. His dad worked at the former gaseous diffusion plant when it started up in 1954.

In 1969, he was approved for the site’s apprenticeship program, but put it on hold while he served in the military during the Vietnam War.  He began his apprenticeship in December 1972 when he returned from the war.

His union activism started during a 1974 strike at the plant, and in 1976 he became a strike captain. After the dispute ended, he became a steward and then a Division 1 maintenance committeeman. He filled in for local union leaders when they needed assistance while he was raising a young son.

The membership elected Knauff local union president in 1989, and he held that position until he was appointed a staff representative in October 1995. He serviced locals in the South and the Midwest.

In 2011, Knauff retired from the International and returned to the Piketon plant. He said that when members requested he run for local union president last year, he decided to put his name in and won.

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