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Metropolis | Honeywell announces layoffs
Honeywell announces plans to idle Metropolis plant, reduce workforce by 170 positions

METROPOLIS — On March 11, 2011, a nearly six-minute, 9.0 magnitude earthquake violently shook Japan, unleashed a deadly tsunami and set off three nuclear reactor meltdowns resulting in high radioactive releases that forced thousands to flee their homes.

Following the disaster, numerous countries shut down reactors and implemented nuclear power phase-out policies.

Six years later, the long-term effects of the Fukushima disaster are delivering a hard economic punch to deep Southern Illinois. Honeywell announced on Monday it intends to idle its Metropolis plant that produces uranium hexafluoride, or UF6 — an essential compound used to produce enriched uranium for use as fuel in nuclear power plants — in the first quarter of 2018.

It’s the only plant in the country that converts uranium ore into UF6, and it’s one of only a handful of private industrial employers in Massac County and the surrounding Ohio River Valley region that provides workers with steady middle-class wages.

In announcing plans to indefinitely close its plant and reduce its workforce by 170 full-time and 105 contract workers, Honeywell cited “significant challenges” facing the nuclear industry, which the company says is oversupplied with uranium hexafluoride, or UF6.

“In particular, the decrease in demand in Japan and Germany following the Fukushima disaster has had a significant impact on the industry and continues to create an over-supplied market for the uranium fuel cycle, and a downward trend in the uranium markets,” a Honeywell spokesperson wrote in a emailed statement.

Citing an analysis from Energy Resource International, Honeywell stated that since the Fukushima disaster, global demand for nuclear fuel has dropped 15 percent, and demand is not anticipated to rise before 2020.

"As a result of this business outlook, Honeywell plans to temporarily idle production of UF6 at its Metropolis site, while maintaining minimal operations to support a future restart should business conditions improve,” the company wrote.

A spokesperson said the company will keep 26 Honeywell employees and 18 contractors at the facility to support minimal on-site operations to ensure a successful restart.

“While industry analysts indicate that demand is unlikely to increase between now and 2020, we will actively monitor market conditions to determine optimal conditions to support restart,” the company’s statement continued.

The news hit hard in Metropolis, population 6,300.

There’s never a good time to lose 170 full-time jobs and dozens of other contract positions in a town the size of Metropolis.

“But then you get around your holiday seasons, it’s just devastating,” Metropolis Mayor Billy McDaniel said. “There’s probably not too many people this doesn’t directly affect. Either it affects you directly or you know someone who works at that plant.”

McDaniel said Harrah’s Metropolis casino is the town’s largest employer by the numbers, and local governments, schools and the hospital also employ a substantial chunk of the town’s population. But Honeywell “is way at the top of the pecking order as far as high-income types of jobs,” he said. Other industrial employers include Cook Coal Terminal, LaFarge North America cement plant and Dynegy’s coal-fired power plant in nearby Joppa.

McDaniel said the state will assist with retraining and job placement, and employees will be eligible for state unemployment insurance benefits while they look for other work. But it will be hard for many workers to find something that pays as well in the nearby region, he said.

Of Illinois’ southernmost nine counties The Southern Illinoisan profiled in its recent “Forsaken Egypt” article outlining deteriorating financial conditions across Illinois’ Ohio River Valley region, Massac County fares slightly better than most of the others.

Forsaken Egypt: Poverty darkens Southern Illinois’ beautiful Ohio River Valley region

The 981-mile Ohio River begins in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and borders or runs through six states, including a 133-mile leg along the southern border of Illinois. The Ohio enters the state near Uniontown, Kentucky, which is about 15 minutes from Old Shawneetown in Gallatin County, and then runs alongside Hardin, Pope, Massac, Pulaski and Alexander counties.

Metropolis — home of Superman — is the second-largest city in the region, behind only Harrisburg in size. But Massac County also has seen worsening poverty rates and associated social problems. For example, the number of children classified as low-income at Metropolis Unit School District 1, increased from 52 percent in 2013 to 62 percent in 2017. In the county, about one in four children younger than the age of 18 live below the poverty line. The number of people receiving food stamp benefits increased more than 10 percent between 2000 and 2010. 

“We all know a big portion of problems in any family is the economic part of it,” the mayor said. “Income and wages and things like that have a big impact on that family and what they deal with every day. It affects the children, the father the mother, and it does try your community.”

Metropolis Works began operation in 1958 under a contract with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, according to Honeywell’s website. It has operated as a private converter since 1968 under a license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In 2012, the site was upgraded to comply with post-Fukushima federal regulatory standards to withstand tornadoes and earthquakes.

In a statement addressing Honeywell’s temporary closure, U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, whose district includes Metropolis, took a shot at the energy policies of former President Barack Obama’s administration.

“For all the previous administration’s talk of green jobs, their policies consistently failed to recognize both the environmental and economic benefits of clean, reliable nuclear power,” Shimkus said. “The Trump Administration thinks differently, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s recent proposal to more appropriately value the resilient, baseload power generated by nuclear, as well as coal, plants has launched an important and ongoing conversation in Washington.

“As the sole facility in the U.S. that produces an essential component of nuclear fuel, Honeywell’s Metropolis Works is critical to the future of U.S. nuclear energy dominance. My thoughts will remain with the workers, the families, and the entire community as the debate over nuclear energy moves forward.”

Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Gov. Bruce Rauner, said the state, as it always does in situations such as this, immediately mobilized the Illinois Department of Commerce to reach out to the company to provide rapid response and workforce support to dislocated workers. “The department will work alongside other state partners to provide career and training services to these Illinoisans during this period of transition,” she wrote.

In the meantime, many people throughout the region wonder when the economic hurting will cease.

As Housing and Urban Development works to shut down public housing complexes and relocate 400 people from Cairo, the Department of Labor considers permanently closing a Job Corps site in Golconda that employed about 60, and American Coal Co. downsizes operations in Galatia, Honeywell’s announcement that it is letting go of a cumulative 275 workers represents yet another devastating blow — and a big one — in a tough year for the fast depopulating communities in the greater Ohio valley region of Southern Illinois. 

“It’s overwhelming, to be honest, at this point,” said state Rep. Natalie Phelps Finnie, D-Elizabethtown. Finnie said she reached out to the company to ask if their decision had anything to do with the business climate in Illinois, such as worker’s compensation costs or the labor environment.

Though the Honeywell plant has been beset by labor strife in recent years, including the company employing lengthy lockouts of employees represented by the United Steelworkers 7-669 as contract talks broke down, Finnie said the company assured her that was unrelated to the decision announced Monday. 

As well, she said Honeywell officials told her that while they have ideas for improving the business climate in Illinois, this particular decision is a "straightforward supply and demand problem" and unrelated to any changes the company thinks might help their other operations in the state.

“It’s really out of our hands and there’s nothing we can do at this point,” she said.

Finnie said her heart goes out to those receiving this news at the holiday.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to clarify the nature of the labor strife between Honeywell and United Steelworkers 7-669. Workers were locked out for months by Honeywell as contract talks broke down. The original version incorrectly stated that workers walked out over negotiations. 

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Honeywell’s Metropolis Works facility is pictured here. Metropolis Works is the only facility in the country that converts uranium ore into uranium hexafluoride (UF6). UF6 is an essential compound used to produce enriched uranium for use as fuel in nuclear power plants, which provide about 19 percent of America’s electricity, according to the company's website. 

The Southern File Photo  

The Honeywell Specialty Materials plant is shown Jan. 18, 2011, in Metropolis.

breaking top story
At the holidays, HUD's confusing letter telling Cairo residents to move 'immediately' met with frustration

CAIRO — Last week, public housing residents in Cairo received a letter from a HUD official stating that they “must relocate from Elmwood and McBride immediately” even though they were previously told that there is not a deadline by which they must vacate their complexes slated for demolition.

Residents said the letter was slipped through their door late Wednesday afternoon.

“My daughter got the letter out of the door because I wasn’t here,” said Loretta Collier, who lives at McBride with her 18-year-old daughter, Aaliyah. “She said, ‘Momma, I’m not going to be able to graduate with my friends. They want us gone immediately.’”

Kristen Simelton, who lives at Elmwood, said that residents already know that they have to move, but said they were assured they would have close to a year after signing up for a voucher. She said it was frustrating and confusing to receive that letter on Wednesday evening. Simelton said she reached out to an aide to Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who relayed to her that HUD had assured the senator’s office that the agency had not set a move-out deadline yet. Still, Simelton said the mixed messages makes it difficult to know what HUD intends. “I don’t trust them at all right now. I can’t.”

“There’s a lot of people scared right now, thinking they may have to leave at any moment and possibly before the holidays,” Simelton added.

HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said the federal housing agency has no intentions of asking people to leave Elmwood and McBride before the New Year. “We’ve been around the housing business long enough to know that not having a home for the holidays is not a good thing,” Brown said. Asked about the letter telling people they had to move immediately, Brown said via email on Monday afternoon, “Ideally, we’d like to relocate all the residents to better housing by the summer of 2018.”

In a follow-up email, the newspaper reiterated its question to Brown about why, if no deadline has been set, residents received a letter the week before Thanksgiving saying they needed to move immediately.

Brown did not respond to the newspaper’s inquiry.

Collier said she’s presently looking for a place in Cape Girardeau, but wanted to wait for her daughter to graduate. Collier said her daughter, who turned 18 on Monday, found the letter so upsetting that she canceled her weekend birthday plans with her friends. “I saw the change in her because I know she’s depressed about that letter,” Collier said. She said her daughter told her, “You know, it’s making me think it’s bad enough where they can take my friends away from me. All I want to do is graduate with them.”

Simelton, the resident of Elmwood, said that since HUD has clarified to the newspaper that people do not have to move immediately, she surmises it is a “scare tactic” to motivate people to work harder to find an alternative location. Whatever the case, Simelton said it was in poor taste. “You can’t yank people around like that,” she said. “Why would you send people stuff like that at the holidays and get them all worked up.”

“We’re not cattle,” she added. “You can’t just shove us this way and that way.”

The letter dated Nov. 15 from Towanda Macon, the HUD-appointed executive director of the Alexander County Housing Authority, further stated that the agency is “stressing the urgecy of relocation prior to the winter months for health and safety.”

“Soon, ACHA will have to set a date certain for all families to vacate Elmwood and McBride properties,” it continued. The letter from Macon to the residents mirrored a letter that Jim Cunningham, the deputy administrator for HUD’s Chicago-based Midwest regional office, recently sent to Macon.

The letter also stated that if Elmwood and McBride continue to deteriorate “the ACHA may be forced to insist on emergency relocation sooner than later.”

In April, HUD announced that it would begin the process of relocating 185 families from Elmwood and McBride. To date, 70 have relocated, and about 115 families remain at the two properties.

In a letter also dated Nov. 15, U.S. Sens. Duckworth and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., wrote to HUD Secretary Ben Carson seeking clarity on the relocation timeline and chastising the agency for — as they described it — failing to take decisive action to “stop the tide of misinformation that pervades the community.” Durbin and Duckworth said the fact that HUD officials are not taking care to send clear and accurate information and to clarify misinformation circulating in Cairo “adds insult to injury” in a time of uncertainty for many families.

The letter from Illinois’ senators states that they were notified that several residents had received misinformation by HUD-contracted relocation specialists that HUD has instituted a mandatory move-out deadline of Dec. 1.

“As you know, during our meeting in July of this year, you assured us that HUD had no plans to impose a move-out date on residents, recognizing the tremendous impact this would have on the community and local school district as HUD has been unable to identify available housing sufficient for all families wishing to remain in Cairo.”

The senators, in their letter, told Carson that after several inquiries to HUD staff they were informed that the agency has not instituted a move-out date or directed its employees to communicate a Dec. 1 move-out date. “However, when asked how HUD intends to correct and prevent misinformation from being spread to residents, we were told to refer the residents back to the very same relocation specialists,” the letter stated.

“This is not the first time we have raised issue with you or your staff about how misinformation and a lack of clarity from HUD regarding the relocation effort harms residents and hinders ongoing efforts to ensure every family living in Elmwood and McBride has access to safe and affordable housing,” it continued.

This past Thursday, HUD officials were in town for an open house celebration for Little Egypt Estates, a 10-unit complex owned by Shawnee Enterprises Inc. that is housing families from Elmwood and McBride. The newspaper asked HUD’s Brown and Cunningham if they had seen the letter from Durbin and Duckworth.

“Yeah, we’ve seen it. I don’t know that we read it all, but we saw it,” Brown said. To the specific concern about the Dec. 1 deadline, Cunningham said: “Rest assured that no relocation staff has ever uttered the word ‘Dec. 1’ as a deadline.”

“Even when they get something like that, if there’s a rumor, you probably should just let us know so we can go back to the individual and say, ‘That’s simply not the case.’ Or they could have asked us, just like your person at the governor’s office. Just ask us and we’ll tell you,” Brown added. But again, when asked why the letter said people should move immediately, Brown did not provide a response. Cunningham said the intent of the letter was to state that HUD does not intend to rehabilitate any of the buildings at Elmwood and McBride. Asked if the language in the letter telling residents they had to move immediately was a mistake, Cunningham referred all additional questions to Brown.

On Thursday, Brown said that federal housing officials were asked by residents, as well as city and state leaders, to be as patient as possible with the relocation process that was announced on April 10. “And we believe we’ve accommodated them,” Brown said. “But the bottom line is there will be a demolition of Elmwood and McBride and we would like to have people moved as soon as possible.”

Brown said the agency wants the moving process to be convenient for people. “We understand breaks in school, so maybe at the end of the school year. But 2018, the demolition order is going in.”

While HUD’s actions suggest the agency is eager to move everyone out and return the ACHA to local control, federal housing officials do not have a history of acting quickly to assist the people of this region. HUD placed the ACHA into administrative receivership on Feb. 22, 2016. As previously reported by The Southern Illinoisan, HUD knew of serious problems with the ACHA dating back to at least 2010. The federal agency charged with oversight of local housing authorities dragged its feet for years before intervening in the ACHA’s affairs in a substantive way. After placing the housing authority into administrative receivership, HUD waited another 14 months before announcing a relocation plan and publicly acknowledging for the first time on April 10 that the buildings are no longer safe for habitation.

At the time, HUD officials also stated that they had studied all viable options, including whether Elmwood and McBride could be renovated, and found that to be cost prohibitive. When Secretary Carson visited on Aug. 8, after meeting with local officials, he directed his staff to re-analyze whether any building rows could be salvaged at the two complexes. It took more than three months for HUD to send a letter to Mayor Tyrone Coleman stating that HUD was sticking to its original plan, which by all signals, it always intended to do.

Further, Macon’s letter to residents states that the ACHA is finalizing the Section 18 demolition plans for the 278 units at Elmwood and McBride. As well, Brown said in the interview, “The bottom line is there will be a demolition of Elmwood and McBride and we would like to have people moved out as soon as possible.” However, HUD will not commit to tearing down the complexes before returning the housing authority to local control in 2018. In fact, Brown said it is highly unlikely that the demolition will take place by then. He also refused to put a timeline on when that would take place.

“The normal thing that we would do would be to fence off, secure off the area, and once funding is acquired for the demolition, that would take place. There’s also environmental and other things that need to take place as part of the demolition,” Brown said.

Because leaving two large vacant public housing complexes sitting for years as decaying and dangerous eyesores would be problematic for Cairo, and potentially lead to safety issues for the residents who call the city home, the newspaper asked Brown if demolition within two years was reasonable — or five. “I’m not going to set a timeframe because we don’t know about the funding. You have to go through a process. Where we’ve been able to do it in other places it hasn’t taken years, but I’m not going to go out and say it will be done by ‘this’ timeframe.”

As well, HUD has yet to make a determination on the future of the Mary Alice Meadows apartment complex in Thebes. That building also is aging and failing. It scored a 26 out of 100 possible points at its last inspection in 2016 — a failing score. That building, though not as old, also shows signs of neglect. HUD asked Alexander County, one of the poorest counties in the state, to utilize $400,000 it has in a fund that can be used for infrastructure projects to renovate the Thebes property. The county said no as the money already is earmarked for repair of the Len Small Levee, and commissioners also questioned whether they would be throwing good money after bad since the complex has structural issues that need to be addressed. HUD has yet to announce what’s next. Brown said there are a number of possible options under review, but that HUD does not want to alarm anyone by discussing them prematurely.

In their letter, Sens. Durbin and Duckworth outlined several questions for HUD. Those questions are about what HUD is doing to make sure the information disseminated to residents is clear, whether HUD intends to still help all families secure housing, and what the agency is doing to maintain Elmwood and McBride while families remain there.

“We don’t have any comment on the senators’ letters,” Brown said. He noted that if there’s a response from HUD, it will come from the agency’s congressional staff directly to them.

Mayor Coleman said he has a good working relationship with a few people at HUD, including Cunningham, who he said communicates clearly and keeps his word. But overall, he said HUD's mixed messages speak to what he perceives to be an attitude of indifference to the people of Cairo by some of HUD's higher-ups in Washington. "It’s just unreal," Coleman said.

Union County
Union County father, toddler daughter die from tree falling on home

ANNA — A Union County father and his toddler daughter died early Saturday after a tree fell onto their home, crashing through into the master bedroom in which they were sleeping, according to Union County Coroner Phil Hileman.

Jared Newman, 32, and his daughter, Echo, were killed by the crashing tree. Monday would have been Echo's second birthday.

The accident happened just before 6 a.m. Saturday, hours before the heaviest of winds blew through this area, Hileman said.

“Just a very, very horrible, tragic accident,” Hileman said.

The tree, which appeared fine on the outside, he said, apparently had a deteriorated root base. He said Newman and Echo were asleep in one bedroom of the modular home, while another child, a young boy, was asleep in another bedroom. First responders treated the young boy, who also received injuries, at the scene, according to Union County Sheriff Scott Harvel. Newman's wife, who was preparing for work in another part of the home, was not injured.

"My belief is that with the high winds we had, it finally failed, it didn't have enough root system to (keep it grounded)," Hileman said of the tree.

Harvel said looking at the tree, there was no way to tell that it was decayed on the inside.

"Sad, very sad," he said.

He said Newman, who worked as a substitute art teacher, started a job at the Choate Mental Health and Development Center Center in Anna.

Visitation is from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Rendleman and Hileman Funeral Home in Jonesboro. Their services will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday.