WASHINGTON — Prominent Republican lawmakers say the 10,000 jobs created by federal economic-stimulus money at South Carolina's Savannah River Site and other nuclear complexes are wasteful, costing taxpayers more than $194,000 a job.
The Congressional Republicans point to a new report on the results of $1.9 billion in stimulus spending by the Energy Department thus far at Savannah River Site and 16 other facilities nationwide to clean up toxic waste produced by decades of building nuclear weapons.
The 17 nuclear sites will get a total of $6 billion by the end of the 30-month stimulus funding period on Aug. 31, 2011, with $1.6 billion slated to go to Savannah River Site in Aiken County. Savannah River Site has received about half that total to date.
The report by the General Accounting Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, assessed the impact of stimulus funding and the cleanup progress at the 17 facilities through March.
The report cited Energy Department figures showing that stimulus money had created 2,258 jobs at Savannah River Site. It challenged the Energy Department's claims the money saved the jobs of an additional 1,098 SRS workers who would have been let go without the extra money.
"It looks like the Department of Energy got in over its head when it was handed $6 billion in stimulus money to create jobs by accelerating environmental cleanup work," said U.S. Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, former House Energy Committee chairman and now its senior Republican.
"It's hard to believe that the Energy Department isn't creating a lesson in how to waste a lot of money in a hurry," Barton said. Energy Department officials at SRS and in Washington disputed Barton's claim — echoed by other Republicans — that each job created at the 17 nuclear complexes carries a taxpayer-funded price tag of $194,213.
Colin Jones, an Energy Department senior policy adviser on stimulus spending, said that assertion is misleading because, he said, some of the money spent at the nuclear facilities doesn't cover workers' wages.
"This (waste cleanup) is for the most part highly technical work," Jones said. "There are a number of costs associated with doing that work. Beyond the salaries we pay our workers, there are large capital costs. We have to buy equipment, concrete tools, protective clothing and many other related things."
The new report puts U.S. Reps. Joe Wilson and Gresham Barrett, two S.C. Republicans, in a bind: Along with all other GOP lawmakers, they voted against the $787 billion stimulus bill when the House passed it in February 2009.
Yet thousands of constituents of Wilson and Barrett work at Savannah River Site, among them hundreds hired with and paid by stimulus money.
Wilson and Barrett declined to say whether they agreed with the claims by Barton and other Republican colleagues that the SRS stimulus-funded jobs are too costly.
"The Savannah River Site certainly needs federal funding as we manage (Cold War) legacy nuclear waste, but the so-called stimulus bill did not need to be the vehicle for funding," said Wilson, of Springdale. "Using the normal appropriations process to fund SRS projects and missions would be more efficient and transparent."
Calling the SRS cleanup work "of the utmost importance," Barrett of Westminster gave a similar response.
"The federal government must fulfill the commitment it made to the state of South Carolina and the communities surrounding SRS to clean up the Cold War-era nuclear waste that still exists at the site," he said.
Barrett, who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for governor this year, added, "However, with our country facing a trillion-dollar deficit, we must always strive to ensure that any taxpayer dollars are spent as effectively and efficiently as possible."
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat, helped obtain the $1.6 billon in stimulus money for Savannah River Site's waste cleanup, and some of his constituents also work there.
"Cherry-picking numbers without putting them in context provides no real value and ignores the whole picture," Clyburn said. "It seems to me that critics of the stimulus are grasping at straws to discredit its success."
Clyburn cited a July 27 report by two prominent economists, Alan Blinder of Princeton University and Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics, in which they state that the stimulus has done what it was supposed to do: end the Great Recession and spur recovery.
The stimulus funds at SRS, Clyburn said, will help transform 55 square miles of once-unusable property.
"The raw numbers (in the GAO report) don't take into account that these stimulus jobs have enabled the Savannah River Site to clean up 55 square miles of once-unusable property," Clyburn said. "In addition to personal and family benefits, this property will return to the federal government and the state of South Carolina far more than the initial investment."
David Jameson, head of the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce, said the newly hired Savannah River Site workers have pumped money into his area's economy, providing spinoff benefits from the stimulus spending.
"They've absorbed most of the rental housing," he said. "They eat in our restaurants and buy groceries at our stores." Jameson noted Aiken's jobless rate of 7.9 percent is the lowest of South Carolina's 46 counties and well below the statewide level of 10.7 percent.
GOP lawmakers have mocked predictions by President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats that the stimulus plan would "save or create" 4 million jobs nationwide, including more than 50,000 in South Carolina.
The state's jobless rate has risen slightly in the nearly 18 months since Obama signed the stimulus bill into law.