Tuesday, October 10, 2000

Piketon feels suspicious but grateful

Some think jobs would be gone in nonelection year

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Guarded optimism, many residents of Piketon, Ohio, have come to realize, is still better than none at all.

        So it was Monday following the federal Energy Department's announcement that the area's largest employer, the U.S. Enrichment Corp.'s uranium-processing plant, would go into a “standby” mode instead of the planned closing announced in June.

        For some in this town about 95 miles east of Cincinnati amid the sloping hills of Pike County, the decision brings hope that the few good-paying jobs in this corner of Appalachia can be saved.

        The layoff of 1,900 workers at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, scheduled to begin next year, would have had a ripple effect, hurting local restaurants, stores and home prices. The work force includes people from Brown and Clermont counties.

        For others, the decision smacks of election-year politicking at its most shameless.

        “Anytime a politician promises something, we're cautiously optimistic,” Bob Gatrell, a 28-year-veteran at USEC whose family has worked there for three generations, said Monday. “You feel constantly used any time politics is involved; there's a sense of mistrust.”

        Ohio is a key state in the presidential election, and some suspect that the Energy Department's plan is more about votes than jobs.

        The plant's operations will still shut down temporarily during the conversion to a different type of technology — from gaseous diffusion to gas centrifuge — but equipment will remain.

        Ironically, the plant abandoned gas centrifuge in the early '80s because laser technology was considered a better long-term option. Both enrich uranium for nuclear reactor fuel.

        Because some of the workers — including Mr. Gatrell — were at USEC when gas centrifuge was used, they'll have an advantage when the new jobs are created.

        Since June, career-development training centers have teemed with USEC workers who wanted to get out ahead of the closing to avoid competing with a glut of unemployed workers.

        USEC responded by offering bonuses for people to stay for at least a year. Mr. Gatrell's daughter, Jennifer Hopkins, who works in the purchasing department, took the bonus.

        The average salary, with benefits, of those affected by the closing was $49,000. In Piketon, a 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 with a national average of 4.1 percent.

        “That would have been devastating for so many families if the plant closed,” said Pat Lahman, owner of Cayman's Family Dining Restaurant in Piketon, a lunchtime spot for USEC workers. “I imagine there's a lot of happy people today.”

        Enjoying lunch there Monday was Jerry Istre, 51, owner of Tulsa, Okla..-based Istre Co., which installs plastic linings on underground storage containers at USEC.

        He's been doing the same work at Fernald for four years, and said that a closing would actually have created more work for his company.

        “If they treat them like they treat them at Fernald,” he said, “they'll take care of them.”


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