Note: This story was last updated at 9:20 a.m. July 13.
The Trump administration’s budget request for the next fiscal year would close a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration air research laboratory that has a division in Oak Ridge, according to budget documents posted online.
The budget request for fiscal year 2018, which starts October 1, would close NOAA’s Air Resources Laboratory, or ARL, which has headquarters in College Park, Maryland. The Air Resources Laboratory has satellite campuses in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Idaho Falls, Idaho; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Mercury, Nevada. Those satellite campuses would also close, according to the documents, which were posted by the NOAA Budget Office.
The Oak Ridge campus is on South Illinois Avenue, in a historic building that was once an emergency hospital and then a health department. It now houses the Atmospheric Turbulence and Diffusion Division, or ATDD. The Atmospheric Turbulence and Diffusion Division is one of several field divisions of the Air Resources Laboratory. The ARL in turn is part of NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research.
There are 33 employees at the Oak Ridge campus, including NOAA and ORAU workers. The primary focus of the ATDD is to maintain NOAA’s Climate Reference Network, a network of weather stations across the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, to monitor climate change.
The Oak Ridge division also works with other NOAA groups that study the formation of tornadoes, using unmanned aerial vehicles to understand tornado formation. It also works with the Air Resources Laboratory headquarters on air quality modeling and forecasting.
The NOAA budget request, which has not been approved by Congress, proposes zeroing out funding and employment at the Air Resources Laboratory, cutting base funding from about $4.7 million and 34 full-time equivalents (FTE) to $0 and zero FTE. President Donald Trump submitted his administration’s budget request to Congress on Tuesday, May 23.
“NOAA’s budget proposes to eliminate ARL’s research on air chemistry, mercury deposition, and atmospheric dispersion of harmful materials in order to fund other priority programs,” according to a fiscal year 2018 congressional justification (see page OAR-30 about halfway through the document).
It’s part of a proposed decrease in funding for NOAA weather and air chemistry research (see page 29 of this fiscal year 2018 NOAA bluebook).
The budget request proposes consolidating ARL’s remaining research functions into other NOAA laboratories. NOAA would end applied research and observational data collection that is being used to study and project the effects of air chemistry on human health and the environment, the congressional justification said.
NOAA would no longer support the Hybrid Single Particle Lagrangian Integrated Trajectory (HYSPLIT) model, which is used for emergency response applications and by researchers to study topics ranging from mercury deposition to anthrax bioterrorism.
The budget would also end ARL’s support for agencies to predict where airborne hazardous materials—like acid rain, wildfire smoke, mercury contamination, or radioactive materials—will go, the congressional justification said.
The U.S. Climate Reference Network (CRN) and other observational networks that are now managed by ARL would be consolidated into other NOAA laboratories.
With the termination of the Air Resources Laboratory, NOAA would explore a range of options to address staffing, including transfers, voluntary early retirement authority (VERA), and voluntary separation incentive payments (VSIP), the congressional justification said. Other options would be requested and/or explored, it said.
Other budget changes could affect Oak Ridge also
NOAA is not the only federal agency where budget cuts could affect facilities and programs in Oak Ridge. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in particular, would also be cut, by about 15 percent, or $185 million, compared to fiscal year 2017, if the president’s budget request for the U.S. Department of Energy were approved.
But some DOE sites and programs Oak Ridge could have budget increases, perhaps mostly notably at the Y-12 National Security Security Complex. Funding there would increase by 25.4 percent, compared to fiscal year 2016, under the budget request submitted to Congress in May, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration.
There has been bipartisan opposition to the president’s budget in Congress, including because of some of the steep cuts that have been proposed to federal organizations and programs such as DOE and the U.S. State Department. So far, no one interviewed by Oak Ridge Today, mostly related to the proposed DOE increases and decreases, expects the budget request to pass as proposed. But it’s not clear if some cuts, including to NOAA divisions like ATDD or to DOE programs or facilities in Oak Ridge, might still be implemented but at lower levels than proposed by the Trump administration.
The discussion of cuts, the zeroing out of some programs, and the potential loss of jobs is causing some anxiety in Oak Ridge, even if nothing has been approved yet.
Some officials think Oak Ridge will be okay in the end, especially given bipartisan support for facilities like Oak Ridge National Laboratory, DOE’s largest multiprogram science and energy laboratory. Others think a continuing resolution, keeping spending at current levels, is the most likely outcome.
It’s not clear yet what Congress might propose or approve for NOAA programs like the Air Resources Laboratory.
The federal work in Oak Ridge, especially at the DOE facilities, does have advocates in the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, has suggested the federal government ought to find a method other than cutting discretionary spending, which is used to run federal departments and agencies, to balance the federal budget.
“We will not balance the budget by cutting discretionary spending, which is only 31 percent of spending and is already under control because of earlier budget acts,” Alexander said in reaction to Trump’s preliminary budget blueprint in March. “Runaway entitlement spending—more than 60 percent of spending—is the real cause of the $20 billion federal debt. With Medicaid reforms in the health care bill, Congress is taking an important step in addressing entitlement spending.”
His priorities, Alexander has said, are national defense, national laboratories, the National Institutes of Health, and national parks. The senator has expressed support for government-sponsored basic research.
“Government-sponsored basic research is one of the most important things our country can do to encourage innovation, help our free enterprise system, create good jobs, and make America competitive in a global economy,” said Alexander, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and chair of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.
The part of the federal budget overseen by the Appropriations Committee is under control, going up at about the rate of inflation, Alexander said during a June 21 DOE budget hearing.
“Those aren’t the problems,” said Alexander, who has generally addressed discretionary spending but hasn’t specifically addressed the proposed NOAA cuts. “The problem, as we all know it, (is) the mandatory entitlement funding.”
NOAA’s proposed budget would cut its discretionary spending by about 17 percent. NOAA has proposed a budget of $4.78 billion budget for fiscal year 2018. That would be a decrease of roughly $987 million, or close to $1 billion.
According to its website, research at ATDD is performed in collaboration with other NOAA laboratories, government agencies, universities and private organizations. The Oak Ridge division operates two permanent research stations, one at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Walker Branch Watershed forested experimental area and the other on the DOE reservation at the Chestnut Ridge Environmental Study site. Important on-site facilities include a wind tunnel laboratory, machine shop, electronics laboratory, and chemical instruments laboratory.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
See the NOAA Budget Office website here.
See the NOAA Budget Estimates for Fiscal Year 2018 here (see the Oak Ridge-related information starting on page OAR-30 about halfway through the document).
See the NOAA Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Summary here (see page 29 for information on NOAA’s weather and air chemistry research).
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