Most Recent Action   Administration Actions   Action in the 107th Congress   Background   Recent Hearings 

DOE Environmental Management Program Update (9-12-02)

The Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Environmental Management (EM) is responsible for the cleanup of all 114 DOE-managed sites formerly involved with research, development, and testing of nuclear weapons. Although DOE completed active cleanup at 74 of the sites in the beginning of Fiscal Year (FY) 2002, the larger, more substantial sites still present huge challenges. Since the implementation of the EM program in 1998, $60 billion has been spent with little progress to show for the high expense. With a combination of factors such as estimated future costs climbing to $300 billion, cleanup timelines extending up to 70 years, and little actual risk reduction being accomplished, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham requested a top-to-bottom review to analyze and determine the fundamental problems of the EM program. This review, released on February 4, 2002, expressed how the EM program had failed to live up to the expectations, and that the program "tried to solve the wrong problem and used the wrong set of indicators to measure success." As a result of the review, DOE proposed the Cleanup Reform Appropriations account to accelerate EM cleanup efforts. The major sites involved in this proposed accelerated cleanup program are Savannah River Site in South Carolina, Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), Hanford in Washington State, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, and the Nevada Test Site as they all signed "Letters of Intent" with DOE this year.

Most Recent Action
On July 8, 2002, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approved a $300 million boost to the accelerated cleanup program account, bringing the total to $1.1 billion if approved by Congress. This is part of the $6.7 billion EM budget request for fiscal year 2003. A few days later on July 11, 2002, the Senate Energy and Resources Committee held a hearing on the progress of DOE's accelerated cleanup initiative and the changes DOE proposed to the EM science and technology program. Witnesses included representatives from DOE and the cleanup sites.

Previous Developments
Administration Actions
Energy Secretary Abraham's request of the top-to-bottom review of the EM program (released February 4, 2002) marks the first steps toward the development of the accelerated cleanup initiative and efforts toward restructuring of the EM program. Important actions by the DOE in regards to the program are:

Action in the 107th Congress
A number of bills have been introduced in Congress regarding the DOE EM program. So far, all have been referred to committees and await further action. Most of the following bill discriptions are based on Congressional Research Service (CRS) bill summaries.
To ensure that the Department of Energy's Environmental Management program is funded at a level adequate to continue progress in waste treatment and management, site maintenance and closure, environmental restoration, and technology development, while meeting its legally binding compliance commitments to the states, the Atomic Energy Defense Account is increased by $1 billion in fiscal year 2002.
To redirect the Nuclear Waste Fund established under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 into research, development, and utilization of risk-decreasing technologies for the onsite storage and eventual reduction of radiation levels of nuclear waste, and for other purposes. Most recently, referred to House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality.
To amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 with respect to the development of a safety program for the ttransportation of nuclear waste to the Yucca Mountain repository. Most recently referred to House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality.
A bill to make it more likely that the cleanup and closure of the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site will be completed on or before December 15, 2006. Also states that if the transfer of the nuclear material earmarked for disposal is not completed by November 1, 2003, DOE must pay economic/impact assistance to the state of Colorado until all such materials are removed. Most recently referred to Senate Committee on Armed Services.
To authorize funding for University Nuclear Science and Engineering Programs at the Department of Energy for fiscal years 2002 through 2006. Most recently referred to House Subcommittee on Energy.
To amend title 10, United States Code, to require the Department of Defense and all other defense-related agencies of the United States to fully comply with Federal and State environmental laws, including certain laws relating to public health and worker safety, that are designed to protect the environment and the health and safety of the public, particularly those persons most vulnerable to the hazards incident to military operations and installations, such as children, members of the Armed Forces, civilian employees, and persons living in the vicinity of military operations and installations. Most recently referred to House Subcommittee on Military Readiness.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union ending most nuclear weapons production in the US, the aging retired weapons plants run by the US Department of Energy (DOE) now pose as serious environmental and human health threats. Laden with high- and low-level nuclear waste, these sites suffer an array of environmental problems such as growing accumulations of radioactive waste, leaking nuclear waste tanks, improperly disposed chemical waste, radioactive air emissions, and groundwater contamination. Mandated by various federal and state environmental statutes, environmental cleanup and restoration as well as waste management are now Doe's primary mission at these facilities. Such federal mandates include the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund), where enforcement of these laws fall under federal and state jurisdiction. Also, the facilities are subject to lawsuits by states and citizens as well as subject to local, state, and federal environmental standards and procedural requirements. As cleanup costs continue to escalate into hundreds of billions of dollars, there are growing number of questions over Doe's management abilities, the effectiveness of the environmental requirements, and the nation's ability to pay for the program as currently envisioned.

Summary of Hearings (7/29/02)

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
Hearing on the Progress of the DOE Accelerated Cleanup Initiative and Proposed Changes to Doe's EM Science and Technology Program
July 11, 2002

Bottom Line
On July 11th, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), heard testimonies from five witnesses enlightening the committee members on Doe's progress towards the accelerated cleanup initiative. This February, Energy Secretary Abraham announced a new $800 million account aimed at accelerating environmental cleanup at Department of Energy's (DOE) former nuclear weapons construction sites as part of the $6.7 billion Environmental Management (EM) fiscal year 2003 budget request. The states with DOE cleanup sites that would participate in the DOE accelerated cleanup program include Tennessee, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, New Mexico, and South Carolina. At this hearing, a representative from DOE announced that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) agreed to boost the proposed accelerated cleanup program by $300 million, bringing the total budget request to $1.1 billion. Witnesses representing DOE cleanup sites from Hanford (WA), Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories (NM), and Idaho National Engineering and Environment Laboratory (INEEL) commented on Doe's shortfalls, especially regarding issues of funding, unclear priorities, insufficient details, and delays. Some of the Senators also expressed their concerns with the goals set by DOE. Chairman Bingaman worried that the new cleanup fund "could be viewed as an incentive to encourage state regulators to relax cleanup standards," and that he felt "uncomfortable" about allotting provisions without a "firm plan." The DOE witness stated the department's commitment in attacking cleanup problems and belief that the current situation provides an opportunity for reform. DOE also denied any intent to avoid compliance to any of the regulatory agreements.

Senators Present
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR),

Hearing Summary
The first panel consisted of representatives from DOE. First to speak was Jessie Roberson, Assistant Energy Secretary for Environmental Management, who oversees the DOE EM program. Her testimony provided a progress report and plan of action on the accelerated cleanup efforts. Earlier this year, a DOE top-to-bottom review of the accelerated cleanup program concluded the need for program reform. Since then, DOE has been working hard at making improvements to the program. Such efforts include signing "Letters of Intent" to pursue accelerated cleanup strategies, and preparing Performance Management Plans (PMPs) to be completed by August 2002 for all the current sites. In terms of research, Roberson said that "longer-term, basic research that can result in breakthrough technologies" was needed. She also acknowledged that DOE "understands its obligation to comply with environmental laws and compliance agreements," and that DOE is also working with local EPA offices and state regulators to make sure the new plans will improve the existing agreements. In regards to science and technology on cleanup, Roberson said DOE plans to realign in FY 2003 to support closure sites and alternative approaches to high-risk/cost baselines.

Dr. Ari Patrinos, Associate Energy Director for the DOE Basic Energy Sciences, testified on the progress and contributions of the life sciences research program under the Office of Science. He believed current research efforts are the "frontlines of the cleanup task." Programs like the Basic Energy Sciences Program, which supports chemical and material sciences, provides valuable information such as choice of waste containers. He stated that hydrology, geophysics, and geochemistry research help develop underground contaminant plume modeling capabilities. Other contributions include research on material transportation as well as promising ideas for bioremediation from involvement with genome projects. Patrinos explained how proposed work undergoes scientific peer reviews and collaboration with EM colleagues. He also mentioned the proposed transfer of the EM Science Program and Savannah River Ecology Lab from the EM office to the Office of Science in FY2003.

The second panel consisted of representatives from several DOE cleanup sites. First to speak was Christine Gregoire, Washington State Attorney General, who provided an update on Doe's cleanup of the Hanford site. She stated Doe's efforts, since the Tri-Party Agreement in 1998, were lacking in many aspects. A main issue was the repeated delays by DOE in the implementation of some of its programs. She said that this is not the first time DOE has tried to "rethink the plan, the strategy, and the funding for Hanford," and that such an approach was ineffective as currently millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste continue to leak into the ground. Gregoire argued that these continued delays in on-the-ground action increase the risk to human health and the environment, and raise the cleanup costs in the long run. Gregoire also commented that the Doe's PMP for Hanford published this May lacked details and clarity on cleanup intents, strategy revisions, and budget information as well as other various issues Gregoire believe critical. She also voiced concern over Doe's definition of accelerated cleanup: "Washington State will not sit back and allow the federal government to declare the Hanford cleanup a success by simply moving the goal line….That is not 'accelerated cleanup' by our standards." Gregoire then outlined the state's vision of accelerated cleanup, which includes the use of the best available technology, cost effective management, and better internal and external communication.

Kathleen Trever, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (INEEL) Oversight Program Director, presented Idaho's view and recommendations on the current cleanup efforts at INEEL. Currently, INEEL holds one of the nation's largest stockpiles of hazardous and radioactive waste, and suffers from various contamination issues. Trevor shares Gregoire's view on Doe's lack of commitment in addressing some of the tougher waste problems. Idaho feels that it is "unclear today how DOE is developing environmental management priorities for science and technology" as Doe's latest proposal for FY2003 EM science and technology investments include no INEEL projects. Trever stated Idaho remains committed to the cleanup of INEEL and suggested that effective cleanup requires clearer understanding and agreements on the problems and solutions.

Peter Maggiore, New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED) Secretary, described New Mexico's perspective on Doe's cleanup efforts. He was quick to point out Doe's shortfalls with New Mexico's two facilities: Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories. Maggiore asserted that declining EM funds coupled with continual delays in completion of scheduled cleanups has "forced NMED to change its regulatory stance with DOE facilities." New Mexico proposes an additional $62 million above the president's budget request of $77.7 million in confidence that such a raise will provide sufficient funds to increase the rate of progress. In accordance with the other DOE sites, New Mexico expects maximum cleanup efforts from DOE before sites are declared "closed." Finally, Maggiore pointed out the lack of a "robust, long-term stewardship plan for DOE facilities," thus stressing the need for assured continual DOE involvement in sites that hold remaining waste after closure.

During the question and answer session, Sen. Cantwell questioned Roberson if DOE had plans to reclassify the Hanford waste in order to reduce full removal of waste. Roberson did not provide a full answer due to a pending lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council against DOE, but stated that Doe's plans are reflected in the 1996 Environmental Impact Statement that says DOE will recover as much of the waste as technically feasible (up to 99%). Cantwell doubted any agreement will ensue unless vague language, such as that regarding reclassification, is clarified. In agreement with Gregoire, Trevor, and Maggiore, Cantwell said that Doe's goals need to be clear; otherwise, skepticism will result on the dollars already spent by DOE.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by Summer 2002 AGI/AIPG Geoscience and Policy Intern Evelyn Kim.

Posted September 12, 2002

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