OAK RIDGE, Tennessee —
The value of the government’s economic stimulus program has been a hot topic of debate, particularly during this political season, but the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act gets warm reviews in Oak Ridge.
The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge office received $1.9 billion from the 2009 Recovery Act. About $1.2 billion of that windfall was designated for projects ranging from environmental cleanup to construction of new research facilities. Now into the fourth year of the program, DOE still holds tens of millions of dollars to be spent in 2013.
While the precision of stimulus job counts has been questioned by the U.S. Government Accountability Office and others, DOE spokesman Mike Koentop said 3,863 jobs had been created or saved in Oak Ridge as of the end of July. At that time, there were still 424 workers supported by Recovery Act funding, Koentop said.
Much of the Recovery Act work in Oak Ridge has been carried out with subcontracts, which end as projects are completed and don’t impact the regular contractor workforce at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Y-12 National Security Complex and other federal facilities. Because the work was spread out over four years, there haven’t been the huge employment spikes -- followed by steep layoffs -- seen at other DOE sites with a lot of stimulus money to spend.
“The economic benefit has been huge,” Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan said. “It’s spilled over into retail and housing and the services industry. It’s had a dynamic effect.”
ORNL Director Thom Mason said the lab received $500 million. One of the biggest projects was construction of a new Chemical and Materials Science Building, a stylish three-story, 160,000-square-foot facility with modern wet labs and research office space. Of the building’s $96 million price tag, $60 million came from the lab’s Recovery Act funding.
It’s now fully occupied with ORNL research scientists and visiting collaborators.
The chemical sciences facility had been on the drawing board for a few years and was being proposed for multiyear funding as a capital project in the federal budget. The timing of the Recovery Act worked out almost perfectly for ORNL, allowing the work to be accelerated by at least a couple of years, maybe more. Because the design was virtually complete, the project was deemed “shovel ready” and eligible for a jobs creation initiative.
Perhaps the biggest use of Recovery Act money in Oak Ridge has been environmental cleanup.
Dozens of old and radioactively contaminated buildings at ORNL and Y-12 have been demolished and removed over the past couple of years, with some cleanup work still under way.
Steven Wyatt, a federal spokesman at Y-12, said the stimulus funding helped “transform” the nuclear weapons production site. Seven Y-12 projects created about 2,000 jobs, demolished about 150,000 square feet of old buildings, and got rid of about 74,000 cubic meters of waste, he said.
The Recovery Act work at Y-12 also meant about $50 million in procurements for small businesses, Wyatt said.
Several of the Y-12 projects were completed ahead of schedule and under budget, and the savings are being used to support additional “buy back” projects, which will focus primarily on reducing mercury pollution at the plant, he said.