June 18, 2018
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Budget cuts in D.C. threaten closure of lab in Orono

By Jamison Cocklin, Special to the BDN

ORONO, Maine — A research laboratory at the University of Maine and the18 federal jobs that it provides are now in jeopardy after a recent round of funding cuts brought on by the budget impasse in Washington.

Sandy Miller Hays, a spokeswoman for the United States Department of Agriculture’s New England Plant, Soil and Water Laboratory on the UMaine campus, said Monday that the facility will close in the coming weeks. But U.S. Sen. Susan Collins argues that the lab was not meant to be targeted by the recent cuts, and she is working to reverse the closure and preserve the jobs, her spokesman said.

The stalemate over the future of the Orono facility has halted all research and limited the employees to reviewing only data and paperwork.

On March 18, President Barack Obama signed into law yet another short-term budget fix to keep the government funded through April 8. That same day, employees at the lab had arrived at work to find a disquieting e-mail message waiting in their inboxes. The email said their jobs were about to be cut.

Seven scientists, along with the technicians and support staff that work with them at the laboratory in Orono, learned that earlier in the week, Congress had approved $6 billion in spending cuts in an effort to head off a government shutdown.

The cuts followed a  $4 billion reduction approved by Congress in early March. Both cuts were meant to put a dent in the massive federal debt and the huge deficit projected in the current federal fiscal year.

Employees at the New England Plant, Soil and Water Laboratory, the only one of its kind in the region, work for the Agricultural Research Service, which is the USDA’s chief research agency. The lab’s goal is to develop sustainable and environmentally sound crop systems that help farmers achieve greater profits and efficiency, according to its website.

The lab and its 18 employees work to improve Maine’s most important crops, especially blueberries and potatoes.

The package of cuts approved March 18 eliminated all earmark spending accounts affecting agriculture.

Of the $115 million earmarked for the Agricultural Research Service, $44 million was being used to fund the Orono laboratory and 46 other similar facilities across the country, according to Hays, who was unsure of the exact operating costs at the Orono facility.

Hays said the employees affected in Orono will join 71 others from across the country who will be displaced by the recent budget cuts.

It was unclear Monday, however, whether the facility in Orono will be permanently closed, as Hays said it would be.

A spokesman for Collins said Monday she is trying to persuade members of the Senate Appropriations Committee and Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack  to keep the lab open.

“Senator Collins strongly believes that the USDA is just plain wrong in categorizing the Orono research lab as an earmark, particularly given the fact that the President requested funding for it in his budget requests for fiscal years 2010, 2011 and 2012,” Collins’ communications director, Kevin Kelley, said in an e-mail.  “There is no language in the bill currently funding the government that would require the closure of the lab.”

As employees await one of two outcomes, Hays said agency directors are working to find the displaced workers new research opportunities at other facilities across the country.

When asked how 89 employees, all of whom are facing the prospect of being without employment, could be relocated to new jobs within the agency, Hays noted that the Agricultural Research Service has more than 100 research facilities from Maine to California.

“At any given time ARS has a number of vacancies. Naturally when you have an organization as large as ours, there are going to be openings,” she said. “When an employee is displaced we make every effort to place them. Believe me, we are making a serious effort to find employment opportunities at a number of our facilities across the country. We value these people.”

Sue Erich, a soil scientist and faculty member at UMaine who has worked closely with the lab on joint projects, fears the state will lose a “big chunk of expertise” if it is closed.

According to Erich, the facility is heavily involved in potato production research and in projects involving irrigation for blueberries.

“There is a real value in being able to focus specifically on these types of issues,” she said.  “If someone has a question on a crop issue, they can call elsewhere or look online, but the scientists and technicians at this lab are directly researching Maine’s problems.”

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