Friday, June 23, 2000

Stunned plant workers try to regroup

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mary Osborn and Norma McFann worry about the fture of Piketon.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
        PIKETON — Signs at the entrance to the uranium enrichment plant cut to the chase: No trespassing, cameras, firearms, intoxicants or contraband. To that list, add hope.

        News that U.S. Enrichment Corp. plans to shut down its plant, eliminating 1,400 jobs beginning next June, spread Thursday like a flash fire through this corner of Appalachia.

        “It's going to be devastating,” said electric switch operator Carl Hartley, a union trustee who, with 26 years in, will fall short of a full pension. “Now is not the time to be putting out a resume. Who wants a 51-year-old guy from a nuclear plant?”

        U.S. Enrichment's Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, about 95 miles east of Cincinnati, has been very good to this region — and vice versa.

        Of the 29 southern Ohio counties considered Appalachia, USEC is one of the biggest employers and the only consistent provider of high-salary jobs.

        But the jobs spawned from USEC extend far beyond the barbed-wire fence around its 640-acre site.

        “I remember the last time jobs left, that was about 10 years ago, a lot of homes went up for sale,” said Valerie Hettinter, a 31-year-old waitress at Charlie's Place, about three miles down U.S. 23 in Scioto County.

        At Cayman's Family Dining Restaurant, a USEC lunch spot in Piketon famous for its three-piece fried chicken plate, owner Peg Lahman said, “If the pullout is complete, it's going to be a drastic change. We were looking to expand. Now, who knows?”

        Cayman's is quintessential small-town. There's a Flexible Flyer sled on one wall, with a pair of ice skates hanging from it. The boys skates are hockey, the girls are figure.

        “What ya want?” the waitress asked one local. “The usual?”

        He nodded and out came the fried chicken, a side of mashed potatoes with gravy and corn. For $4.25.

        There's a two-story brick high school on West Street where union workers

        held meetings Thursday, in the shadow of the Piketon water tower. Trains pass but don't stop as they wind along rolling foothills. There's a deer scene painted on the side of one barn.

        In the USEC parking lot, virtually every car is American.

        Pike County is designated as being in severe economic distress by the federal government's Appalachian Regional Commission.

        “These people, they're such good people,” said Jean St. Pierre, a senior career counselor for StarAccess, which has a contract with USEC to provide job re-training. “These people's lives revolved around that plant for decades.”

        Ms. St. Pierre lives in Villa Hills and worked last year at USEC's Paducah, Ky., plant, which many workers here assumed would be closed instead of their plant. She commutes each Monday to Piketon and stays for the work week.

        She has fallen in love with the place. And she knows that, for the most part, workers can either take lower-paying jobs here or move. For many, it's an excruciating decision.

        “This is my home,” said Bob Gatrell, 52, a facility manager with 28 years at USEC. “I'll find something.”

        Others are less optimistic.

        “I don't know,” said Mike Cool, 29, a USEC maintenance mechanic making $21 an hour. He started six years ago as a janitor and worked his way up, despite handicaps that include an artificial leg. Ten years ago, he received a kidney transplant, and he doesn't have a left hand.

        “I'm hoping for transitional training, but I'm fairly low in seniority,” he said. “Plus, my wife is five months pregnant.

        “It's our first.”

        The average salary, with benefits, of those affected by the closure is $49,000. In Piketon, the small Pike County town of 1,745 people that USEC has called home since 1955, the average salary is $26,000. The unemployment rate for this region in May was 6.8 percent, compared to a national average of 4.1 percent.

        Joy Padgett, director of the governor's office of Appalachia, described the closing as “a bomb.”

        Pike County Commissioner Jim Brushart said simply, “Each one of those employees laid off equals a family. Those were good-paying jobs, something we don't have an abundance of in southeast Ohio.”

        Congressman Ted Strickland, whose district includes Pike and Scioto counties, where most USEC workers live, described the closing as “unwise, unwarranted and unacceptable.”

        He said he will introduce legislation in Congress to direct the federal government to buy back USEC and continue operating both the Portsmouth and Paducah plants. “I will also call for an Inspector General investigation into this decision and USEC's privatization,” he added. “I cannot overstate my anger at this decision.”

        Neither can the people here. After all, USEC, a former government enterprise that was privatized in 1998, was required to stay open here until at least 2005.

        But it had an out. With its stock value falling as fast as the world's demand for uranium, USEC's credit rating fell low enough for the company to activate an escape clause.

        The plant's initial purpose was uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons, but that changed to commercial nuclear reactors in the 1960s. It employs 1,900. The 500 jobs not immediately affected will be phased out within four or five years.

        “There's lots and lots of unknowns,” said Ms. St. Pierre. “They're highly skilled, from hourly workers to PhDs. For employers here, they're going to get the cream of the crop, in Cincinnati and Columbus, too.”

        But those places seem a long way from Piketon. The reality of the closure not only clouds the future, it reminds some of the past.

        Norma McFann, 69, was born here. Her dad, a carpenter named Mitchell Osborn, was mayor of Piketon. Her son, Michael, is a 20-year veteran of USEC.

        Before the plant arrived, she said, this was a very quiet place.

        “When that plant came, we had people like you wouldn't believe,” she said, cradling a cup of coffee in her hands as she rocked on her front porch swing on East Main Street. “Every lot, they put a trailer on it.”

        Michael Clark contributed to this report.


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