Thursday, June 22, 2000

Piketon reels from news of plant closure

By Marie McCain and Mara H. Gottfried
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        News of the U.S. Enrichment Corp.'s decision to close the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant spread like a chain reaction through Piketon on Wednesday evening.

        Of the 1,400 employees who will lose their jobs over the next few years, 450 are from this small Pike County village.

        Donna Acord, 37, of Piketon, an office manager at the plant, didn't know about the shutdown plan when she left work early Wednes day to take one of her sons to a doctor's appointment.

        When she arrived home, at about 7:30 p.m., she got a call from her mother.

        “She told me. I'm just in shock,” Ms. Acord said.

        For 20 years, she has worked at the plant. She started as a secretary and worked her way up to office manager. It is the only place the divorced mother of two boys has ever worked.

        “I just can't fathom this,” she said. “I don't understand why they want to shut us down. We had everything up and running. We were doing what Paducah, (another USEC plant) wasn't, I thought.”

        The sites in Paducah and Piketon are the country's two remaining uranium-enrichment plants. Both are owned by USEC.

        Piketon is an area of about 1,700 in rural Pike County, about 60 miles south of Columbus.

        It's a place where if you don't work at the Portsmouth plant, you know someone who does.

        For Pike County Commissioner Raymond Fout, the plant closing is not just an economic blow to the community, it's personal.

        His daughter, Vanessa Burkitt, 40, works in the plant's budget department.

        “She's been there for about 20 years,” he said.

        Reached at his Waverly home, Mr. Fout said the closure would be hardest on those who have a history at the plant, such as his daughter.

        “It's the kind of place that a lot of people went to and got jobs after they got out of high school,” he said. “This is going to be very difficult.”

        Both Ms. Acord and Mr. Fout said the plant pays the best wages in the area.

        Office workers can start at about $25,000 to $35,000 annual ly, while other plant workers can earn salaries in the $40,000 range, they said.

        Besides Piketon, residents in the towns of Rarden and Waverly, and the counties of Scioto, Jackson and Ross will feel the loss.

        Plant loyalty will keep many people on staff until the bitter end, Mr. Fout added. USEC wants to begin layoffs in June 2001 and close the Piketon facility in five years.

        “A lot of people are going to stick with it, because that way they'll get what they can and hope for some kind of severance package,” he said. “We've been through this before (with layoffs in 1985). We're going to be all right.”

        Ms. Acord agreed, but she wondered whether politics didn't play a part in the plant's demise.

        “I feel like (U.S. Congressman Ted) Strickland could have fought harder for us,” she said. “I feel like this is a big political thing.”

        Mr. Strickland, D-Ohio, who represents the area in Congress, said he's working to reverse the decision.

        From his office in Washington, he said he plans to introduce legislation to renationalize the uranium enrichment industry.

Uranium plant shutting down

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