DOE's Accelerated Cleanup Initiative: More Than Just a Quick Fix? (11/02)

The following column by AGI/AIPG Geoscience & Public Policy Intern Evelyn Kim is reprinted from the November 2002 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.

The end of the Cold War has left a legacy of aging nuclear weapons plants run by the US Department of Energy (DOE). Now retired, these facilities pose a serious environmental and human health threat. Laden with high- and low-level nuclear waste, these sites suffer an array of environmental problems such as growing accumulations of radioactive waste, leaking tanks containing nuclear and hazardous waste, 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 both federal and state jurisdiction. In addition to having to meet an assortment of local, state, and federal environmental standards and procedural requirements, the facilities are subject to lawsuits by states and citizens. DOE's Office of Environmental Management (EM) oversees the cleanup efforts for all 114 DOE nuclear weapons development sites. As costs continue to escalate into hundreds of billions of dollars, both Congress and the administration are posing a 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.

Review Leads to Reform

The major activities under the EM cleanup program include environmental restoration, waste management, development of new cleanup technology, and stabilization of surplus nuclear material and facilities. Although DOE completed active cleanup at 74 of the 114 sites in the beginning of fiscal year (FY) 2002, the larger and more substantial sites still present huge challenges. Since the implementation of the EM program in 1989, the federal government has spent $60 billion. Estimates for future costs climb as high as $300 billion with long-term cleanup schedules extending up to 70 years. Concerned that little actual risk reduction being accomplished despite the high expense, 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, concluded that the EM program had failed to live up to expectations and expressed the need for reform. The review stated that the program "tried to solve the wrong problem and used the wrong set of indicators to measure success." Overly optimistic cost estimates and program inefficiencies -- such as only one-third of the EM program budget being used for the actual cleanup and risk reduction work -- were among several internal weaknesses brought to light in the report. As a result, the review prompted the proposal for an $800 million cleanup reform appropriations account to accelerate EM cleanup efforts-the main focus being on reducing risk to public health, workers, and the environment.

Signs of Commitment

The major facilities involved in this accelerated cleanup program are the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), the Hanford Site in Washington State, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, and the Nevada Test Site. Together, they comprise $759 million of the $800 million slated for the new accelerated cleanup account. All have signed "Letters of Intent" this year with DOE to participate in the accelerated cleanup program. Based on the signed agreements between the sites, the states, DOE, and the Environmental Protection Agency, cleanups are expected to be completed earlier than planned with the help of additional funding from the accelerated cleanup account:

Allocating Unallocated Funds?

On July 8, 2002, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approved a $300 million boost to the $800 million dollar budget request for the accelerated cleanup program account, bringing the total to $1.1 billion if approved by Congress. The accelerated cleanup account would comprise a portion of the $6.7 billion EM budget request for FY 2003. Although some may view DOE's efforts as progressive, others hesitate at the idea of allocating over a billion dollars of taxpayers' money for plans lacking an itemized budget plan. Among those sharing such concern is Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee Chair Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), who at a recent hearing expressed his discomfort at the idea of allotting money without spending specifics. He thought the new funds "could be viewed as an incentive to encourage state regulators to relax cleanup standards."

Most recently, the Senate Appropriations Committee rejected the budget proposal for a separate accelerated cleanup account, sharing Bingaman's concern with DOE's spending history. The committee report accompanying the Energy and Water appropriations bill claimed that the DOE created the $800 million account to "lure" sites to renegotiate agreements, and as a way to obtain a large sum of unallocated funds. The decision to reject the proposal of a separate account for the accelerated cleanup program means that Congress maintains control of the purse strings. Instead of giving a lump sum to DOE, the committee recommended an almost equivalent increase but provided detailed report language on how this money is to be used. DOE remains optimistic that the accelerated program account will survive.

Meeting targeted cleanup completion dates will remain in question as long as DOE and Congress continue to debate over who is in charge. Meanwhile, efforts to change the status quo and accelerate cleanup do not appear to be going anywhere, anytime soon.

Evelyn graduated from Smith College in May with a bachelor's degree in geology. She will begin working this fall with Limno-Tech Inc., an environmental consulting firm, in Washington, DC.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

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

Posted July 22, 2003

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