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Is the Department of Energy trying to smother Hanford critique?

A plutonium separation building at Hanford. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

For almost two decades, the Hanford nuclear reservation has had very active public participation and oversight through the Hanford Advisory Board.

At times, it has been a powerful critic of the U.S. Department of Energy's clean-up of Hanford — arguably the most radioactive and chemically contaminated spot in the Western Hemisphere. And at times, the DOE has been irked by a critical public board that tends to go its own way.

The bottom line is that the DOE — especially its Washington, D.C. headquarters  — sometimes has a strained relationship with the Hanford Advisory Board. And earlier this month, it proposed some changes to the structure of the board — including limiting board members to three two-year terms — that have spooked its members.

But why should anyone — especially a Puget Sound resident — even care?

Almost unknown outside of the nation's nuclear clean-up circles, the Hanford Advisory Board is one of the Northwest's greatest political forces for keeping the site's cleanup on track. Conceived by the DOE in 1993 to provide regional advice, the board has seats for 32 Hanford-related interests. Its clout is in its diversity, representing the entire Hanford political spectrum from lefty Seattle environmentalists to Republican-oriented Tri-Cities business interests. Its strength comes from a requirement that the board come to a unanimous decision before taking an official stance; a requirement that has forced long-time foes to become staunch allies on most clean-up issues since the mid-1990s.

Seven seats are held by Tri-City area governments. One is held by the pro-nuclear Tri-Cities Industrial Development Council. Four seats go to the site's union and non-union employees. Six are held by regional whistleblower or environmental organizations. The League of Women Voters, the Benton-Franklin Health Department and the anti-nuclear Physicians for Social Responsibility each have a seat. Three seats go the the Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribal governments. The University of Washington and Washington State University each have a seat. Oregon has two and the public at large has four seats.

Four of the council's 32 seats are held by Seattle-based organizations or institutions — Hanford Challenge, Heart of America Northwest, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the University of Washington. Two of those Seattle seats have been held for 19 years by Gerald Pollet of Heart of America and Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge; both men have been Hanford critics since the 1980s and as such have acted as catalysts to change the way that the site tackles nuclear cleanup.

In fact, roughly 40 percent of the current board members, including Tri-Citians, Oregonians, tribal members and Seattlites, have been involved in the board and Hanford matters for 15 to 40-plus years.

The board's mission is to provide advice and feedback to the DOE and Hanford's two chief regulators, the Washington Department of Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It has finagled extra clean-up money from a reluctant Washington, D.C., tackled excessive bureaucracy within Hanford, pushed hard for the clean-up of specific individual sites within the nuclear reservation and has been a significant factor in getting DOE to deal with the troubled $13 billion waste-glassification complex.

The board and its committee set their own agenda, independently of the feds and state — deciding what issues need further investigation and attention. Over the years, that independence often irritated DOE, which routinely turns over top managers in Washington, D.C. and Richland.

In 2003, the DOE claimed the board was too dominated by special interests, inefficient and needed to represent more people. It wanted to limit the issues that the board could address. At the time, there was an undercurrent of support in the DOE for eventually removing outspoken board members.The board, the EPA and the ecology department rejected that characterization, noting that the board's independence ensured the feds and state would get feedback untainted by corporate and D.C. agendas.

A similar attempt was made in 2008, at which point the Hanford board agreed to set term limits, as long as extensions could be made at the board's request. Since then, the board has always asked for extensions for term-limited members, and the DOE has almost always granted them.

Those 2003 and 2008 proposals popped up again at the board's Sept. 7 meeting.

Cate Alexander, a Washington D.C.-based DOE official in charge of dealing with advisory boards at eight federal nuclear cleanup sites including Hanford told the Hanford Advisory Board that DOE would revive a dormant term limits requirement, seek greater gender and racial diversity on the board, and would install other yet-to-be-announced changes.

That spooked and angered the board.      

Board chairwoman Susan Leckband, a retired Hanford employee living in Benton City, said: "The board is already built on diversity. … This is the public. These are the people who care." She criticized DOE's early September announcement as a decision made behind closed DOE doors. "We have a sense of trust being eroded," she said.

"I suspect (DOE's) real concern is that we ought to be cheerleaders for the Department of Energy," she said. "But we would say the baby is ugly when the baby was ugly."

Leckband said the board has good relations with the current DOE managers in Richland. "But some folks at [Washington, D.C.] headquarters don't see the big picture [on Hanford's cleanup]. They don't look at it strategically. … We are the institutional memory [for the site]."

Paige Knight, a board member who has represented the Portland-based environmental group Hanford Watch since 1993, wrote in a letter to the Tri-City Herald, "Most of the DOE advisory boards…. are rubber stamp boards. We are not. We are a thoughtful and well-studied group of interests that really, deeply care about the clean-up."

In another letter to the Herald, longtime board member and Hanford employee Jeff Luke wrote, "Maybe, just maybe, DOE has not liked hearing the emperor has no clothes."

"If it isn't broke, don't fix it," said the EPA's Hanford manager Dennis Faulk in a phone interview.

The state ecology department has issued a written statement about the issue. "In many ways, we believe the Board is already quite diverse – gender, age, expertise, perspectives, etc. – which is what helps make them effective. We’re not convinced that term limits for certain seats will accomplish DOE’s goal of further diversifying the Board (whatever that might mean). That said, Ecology didn’t oppose term limits, but we did ask that DOE stagger the removal of individuals whose terms were up, so that the Board doesn’t lose a wealth of experience and knowledge all at once."

Meanwhile Paul Seidler, DOE's D.C.-based director of external affairs and Alexander's boss, has argued that the DOE is not trying to stifle the Hanford Advisory Board. "We have a classic conflict in that no one has any ulterior motives," he told Crosscut. "I understand the trust issues."

The Hanford board was created shortly before federal regulations were installed to cover all DOE advisory boards, and Seidler claims that the DOE is simply attempting to make the Hanford's board's procedures compliant with those rules. The other boards have term limits, although Seidler personally is not a fan of term limits. He has no problem with granting extensions to term-limited board members.

The DOE wants to explore term limits and diversity measures for the four at-large seats on the board, Seidler said.

Another DOE proposal is to limit the number of alternates that can participate on the board. Currently, each board member has one to three alternates, many of whom attend meetings with the primary board members. Each of the 32 seats always get one vote. But primary members and alternates routinely move in and out of a group's seat during discussions and debates — much like tag-team wrestlers.

Retired employee Leckband has acknowledged that current board members lean toward being older, white and male. But she added a passion for Hanford affairs is needed because if a member joins the board without a Hanford background, the learning curve on the complex technical and political issues takes a few years.

"People who are knowledgable are hard to find," said board alternate Gary Peterson, the Tri-Cities Industrial Development Council's vice president for Hanford affairs.

The EPA, the state ecology department, Seidler Leckband and other board members said they are willing to discuss the matter more before any changes are made. Leckband wants to ensure that the constituencies will still pick their own representatives to the board, but added that the individual constituencies can try harder for more racial and gender diversity.

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