As many regular policy report readers will recall, not long ago the Department of Energy proposed closing the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL). Indeed, only action by Congress restored a portion of the funding needed to keep SREL operational. However, it appears that SREL funding is again in doubt and may result in the facility closing by the end of the month.

The SREL was founded in 1951 with support from the Atomic Energy Commission, an agency that was ultimately absorbed by the Department of Energy (DOE). Since its inception, the Lab has been operated by the University of Georgia and funded in part by the Department of Energy. The SREL has provided independent evaluation of ecological effects of the Savannah River Site operations through ecological research, education, and outreach.

Presently, funds for the SREL to continue the rest of the fiscal year have not been released by the Savannah River Site. According to a document on the lab’s website, funding has “been budgeted for SREL tasks … however, the funds have not been released to SREL.” If funding is not immediately restored, the lab will be forced to close its doors, which will mean that approximately 100 people will lose their jobs, all outreach programs will cease, and any oversight surveys the SREL is conducting will be concluded.

In response to lack of funding for SREL, Rep. John Barrow (D-GA) wrote in a 28 March 2007 letter to Department of Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, that he was concerned about the reduction in funding to the Savannah River Ecology Lab asking the Secretary to have “your staff halt current plans to reduce funding and then develop a comprehensive plan for SREL to be fully supported by the Department in its historical and future mission.” Rep. Barrow goes on to write, “SREL is the organization that has the expertise, institutional memory, and academic credibility to develop and implement a long-term monitoring plan that will be accepted and trusted by the general public, regulators, and other stakeholders.”

The SREL has also been home to the SREL Herpetology Lab, which has conducted herpetological research since 1967, providing opportunities for post-doctoral associates, graduate students and undergraduate research participants from an assortment of universities. Dr. Whitfield Gibbons, an amphibian biologist at SREL and a professor of ecology at the University of Georgia, writes a weekly column published on the SREL website as well as in several newspapers. He wrote in a recent weekly column, stating “research, training, education outreach, conservation, environmental oversight … those are some of the benefits offered by SREL, at the cost of a minute’s worth of the federal budget. SREL is a national bargain worth keeping.” Gibbons also noted that programs such as SREL’s Rainbow Bay study, funded by the DOE since 1978, “has provided monitoring of more than a half million frogs and salamanders every day since that time, in a habitat not affected by typical human modifications.” The fate of that study along with many others is now uncertain.


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