Kuster Visits CRREL To See Sequester Effects
Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., examines an ice core with engineer Jackie Richter-Menge. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Rep. Annie Kuster crouches for a look at a remote controlled vehicle used in ice fields as James Lever, left, explains projects he has worked on to improve the efficiency of research operations in the field during a tour of CRREL in Hanover. Kuster spoke with CRREL Director Bert Davis, second from right, during the visit about the effects the federal budget sequester could have on the lab's research. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Hanover — Employees at the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory are still waiting to hear when they’ll have to take furloughs because of the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration.
Meanwhile, researchers are also seeing more cuts to travel days and conferences, activities that had already been curtailed before across-the-board federal budget cuts known as the sequester started to take effect.
U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., toured CRREL yesterday and met with researchers who told her how the sequester was influencing daily activities within the research facility. Kuster was joined by her son, Travis Kuster, who is studying engineering at Dartmouth College. Sequestration is meant to help reduce the nation’s deficit.
“I wanted to convey to the people working here at CRREL that I think the sequester is a big mistake,” Kuster said after the tour. “There’s a good way and a bad way to make the cuts you need to make in the federal budget, and this is the worst way. The furlough days will impact the quality of the research and their ability to complete the research in a timely way.”
Officials at CRREL were told earlier this year that they could face 22-day furloughs that would equal a 20 percent pay cut. But the dates for when those furloughs could take place keeps getting pushed back and CRREL Director Bert Davis is still waiting for guidance on how and when to implement the unpaid days off.
Davis has now heard that employees could be required to only take 14 furlough days off instead of 22 and all employees might not be effected. There are about 240 people who work at CRREL, but not all of them are employed by the Army, Davis said.
“The idea of sequester or furlough doesn’t help productivity or morale,” Davis said. “There are a lot of folks who have to go back to our families and make decisions about vacations, summer camps and house renovations.”
And not all the money and projects that come into the lab are for the Army, which means that employees are on deadlines for various organizations, and the furloughs could give the employees less time to do the amount of work that is expected.
Additionally, premiums for health insurance aren’t decreasing.
“For junior employees and mid-level employees, this is a huge whack,” Davis said.
Throughout the past several years, researchers had already cut down their travel time — researchers are doing 30 percent less travel than they were in 2010 — and they’ve cut the number of conferences they attend.
Then when the sequester started taking effect, researchers were asked to cut travel and conference time even more.
The cut in conferences hurt morale the most, Davis said, because conferences are where researchers go to share their work and learn what is cutting edge in their field.
During Kuster’s tour of CRREL, Marianne Walsh, a chemical engineer, explained that one of her recent projects was helping to develop a burn pan, which soldiers could use to dispose of propellents in the field. Previously, soldiers had disposed of their unused propellents by burning them on the ground, which left a large mark on the ground and wasn’t environmentally friendly.
The burn pans were supposed to be demonstrated and tested, but because of the budget cuts, National Guard members weren’t planning to train, which meant the burn pans couldn’t be tested.
CRREL has also been receiving attention recently for trichloroethylene contamination. TCE was used at CRREL from 1960 to 1987 as a refrigerant and there were many leaks and spills. CRREL has been working to test and clean up TCE since the early 1990s, but only recently has vapor intrusion into buildings become an issue.
CRREL and members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced last week that they found elevated levels of TCE 50 feet into the soil on the property’s boundary, which has caused investigators to expand their testing to adjacent sites, including Richmond Middle School and nearby Dartmouth housing.
Kuster said she did not discuss TCE with employees during her visit and only knew about the contamination based on stories she had read in the Valley News.
“I think the important thing about any contamination is to make sure that it’s identified, that the risks are identified and action is taken immediately to keep the community safe,” Kuster said.
But not every part of yesterday’s tour was full of serious issues.
As part of Kuster’s visit, she was led into a room that was minus 20 degrees and the door was shut behind her. Jackie Richter-Menge, a research civil engineer, then picked up a square piece of ice that is 60,000 years old with her black gloves and handed it to Kuster, who wore black dress paints, a gray jacket and no gloves.
When that part of the tour was over and Ritcher-Menge and Kuster parted ways, Kuster wrapped her arms around her tour guide and said, “Jackie, you’re awesome. That was really cool.”
Sarah Brubeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3223.