The $1 trillion federal spending bill passed by Congress last week provides money for a water treatment plant that would help reduce mercury contamination in Oak Ridge, and it includes less money for the Uranium Processing Facility than President Obama had requested, Sen. Lamar Alexander said Thursday.
The U.S. Senate approved the spending bill in a 72-26 vote after the House passed it 359-67. Alexander and Rep. Chuck Fleischmann voted for it, while Sen. Bob Corker voted against it. All are Tennessee Republicans, and Fleischmann’s district includes Oak Ridge.
Alexander said the spending bill provides $16 million less than Obama had requested in his budget for the UPF, a multi-billion-dollar building that would replace old buildings at the Y-12 National Security Complex as part of a years-long effort to update the 811-acre site, consolidate operations, and cut the plant’s high-security “footprint” from 150 acres to 15.
Y-12 was built to enrich uranium during World War II as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project. Today, it’s the nation’s primary storehouse for weapons-grade uranium, and the nuclear weapons plant also fuels the nation’s naval reactors.
Alexander said the spending reduction in the federal legislation was made by eliminating money for preliminary site preparation at UPF since the design for the facility is changing. In October 2012, officials said the UPF, which has an official price estimate of up to $6.5 billion, could be larger than originally planned to make sure all the building’s equipment fits inside.
“My goal is to help make sure the Uranium Processing Facility remains on time and under budget,” Alexander said.
The senator said the spending legislation, which has been signed by Obama, also includes $4.6 million for the continued planning, engineering, and construction of a water processing plant to help prevent mercury contamination at Oak Ridge.
“One of the biggest cleanup problems we have from building our nuclear weapons deterrent in the Cold War era is mercury contamination of waterways in Oak Ridge,” Alexander said.
In May 2013, the senator was in Oak Ridge to announce a new $120 million water treatment plant at Y-12. It would help reduce mercury as workers tear down four contaminated buildings that were used to make nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s, officials said then. The plant would be at the head of East Fork Poplar Creek on the south side of Y-12′s main production area. The plant would be connected to a Y-12 storm water system, and it could begin operating in 2019. It would be able to treat 1,500 gallons of mercury-contaminated water per minute.
Mercury contamination can cause brain and nervous system damage in people who eat contaminated fish.
Mark Whitney, environmental management manager in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Office, said then that mercury contamination at Y-12 is the greatest environmental risk on the Oak Ridge Reservation.
The spending bill passed by Congress last week ensures the U.S. government won’t face a potential shutdown until at least October. The last partial government shutdown in October 2013 had a significant impact on government operations in Oak Ridge and the businesses that support federal facilities here.
The legislation is the result of a compromise brokered in December by Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, and Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican. The bill funds government agencies and scales back automatic spending cuts that hit the Pentagon and major domestic programs last year.
“I cannot support a funding bill that violates the only real progress we have made in getting our fiscal house in order over the past several years,” Corker said. “Instead of building on the gains we made in 2011, limiting discretionary spending, I’m very disappointed the executive branch and Congress continue to push for higher spending levels, like those contained in this bill, without enacting meaningful changes to mandatory programs that our country so desperately needs.”
But Alexander said the legislation wold set base discretionary spending at a level lower than four years ago and take back Congress’s constitutional roles of overseeing spending and setting priorities.
“I voted for this bill because it spends less on this part of the budget than the federal government did four years ago,” Alexander said. “And not passing it would mean turning over spending decisions to President Obama or putting the government on a path to another shutdown. Still, there is a crisis looming with the remainder of the federal budget because of runaway mandatory entitlement spending.”
He said the omnibus legislation sets base discretionary spending at $1.012 trillion for the current 2014 fiscal year. That amount is less than the $1.091 trillion that was enacted four years ago in fiscal year 2010, according to the House Appropriations Committee, Alexander said. He said discretionary spending made up about 35 percent of the federal budget in 2013 and includes programs such as national defense, national parks, and highways.
Mandatory spending, which is not controlled by appropriations legislation and includes entitlements programs, makes up about 60 percent of overall spending, the senator said. He said that spending is projected to increase nearly 80 percent during the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The senator said he and Corker have introduced the Fiscal Sustainability Act, which would reduce the growth in entitlement spending by nearly $1 trillion during the next decade.
Included in the omnibus appropriations legislation is Energy and Water appropriations legislation that was written by the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, of which Alexander is the lead Republican. Alexander cited examples of reductions in spending made under the Energy and Water legislation, as well as Tennessee priorities it would support.
Among the spending provisions, according to the senator’s office, are:
- Cutting spending on wind—The legislation would provide $65 million less than President Obama requested in his budget for research on conventional wind projects, such as the production of turbines and other materials. Alexander said, “It’s time for the wind industry to begin standing on its own in the marketplace. Former Energy Secretary Stephen Chu testified in 2011 that wind energy is a ‘mature technology.’”
- Cutting waste in the U.S. Department of Energy—The legislation would cut $24 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s budget by closing its “energy-efficient buildings hub.” Alexander said, “The energy-efficient buildings hub wasn’t performing well and the department didn’t have a clear way to measure success, making the hub a waste of federal taxpayer dollars.”
Other provisions would benefit Tennessee by supporting the replacement of Chickamauga Lock in Chattanooga and improve waterways near Memphis, Alexander said.
He said the legislation would free up $81 million in money that would have gone toward Olmsted Lock in Ohio, but will instead be available for inland navigation projects that could include Chickamauga Lock. The legislation would do so by changing the requirements of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which draws on fees that commercial users report and pay themselves, so that Olmsted Lock will only receive 25 percent of its money from the fund, instead of 50 percent.
“This is the first appropriations bill with our better funding formula that could help Chickamauga Lock, which is important for Chattanooga and all of East Tennessee because it affects commerce going up the Tennessee River,” Alexander said. “Replacing Chickamauga Lock would help ensure that 6.7 million tons of cargo can continue to move through the lock—keeping 100,000 heavy trucks off Interstate 75 and creating good jobs for Tennesseans in a competitive world.”