The DOE's Dirty Laundry

Remember the savings and loan bailout? You know, the banking fiasco with the $90 billion price tag? Well, that'll look like chump change next to the government's next big repair job: reversing 50 years of environmental ruin in the nation's nuclear weapons complex. Cleaning it up is expected to take at least 75 years and $230 billion-more than twice what the S&L debacle has cost so far.It's not a pretty picture. Radioactive waste oozes from crumbling, million-gallon tanks-some in danger of exploding-at two dormant federal reactors, Hanford in Washington state and Savannah River in South Carolina. At Fernald, a derelict nuke plant near Cincinnati, there are silos crammed with red-hot uranium tailings. At Rocky Flats, a defunct warhead factory in the suburbs of Denver, the ground is spiked with plutonium. And just outside Idaho Falls, people go to sleep at night worrying about the radioactive waste buried under the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. It has a half-life of several thousand years.This is the price we have yet to pay for winning the Cold War. We built a lot of nukes. We built them fast. And we didn't worry about keeping things tidy. The resulting clean-up problems are among the toughest on earth. In many cases, the tools and techniques needed to make things right haven't been invented.Given that, it's a bit discouraging to hear some of the stories coming out of the Department of Energy, the federal agency directing the clean-up. They suggest the DOE lacks the scientific savvy to get the job done.In 1993, for instance, a worker at Hanford used a "rock on a rope" to clear a drain clogged with radioactive gunk, according to a report from the General Accounting Office (GAO). The worker contaminated himself and brought pollution sampling at Hanford to a virtual halt for half a year. At another plant, a worker opened a fan housing in a ventilation duct and inhaled a blast of plutonium dust. In still another, supervisors put lunch rooms in radiologically-controlled zones.The problem isn't limited to the rank-and-file. A third of the DOE's 44 top-level managers responsible for protecting workers from radiation-jobs that require a technical degree in the private sector-lack any scientific degree whatsoever, according to John Crawford Jr., a nuclear engineer and recently-retired member of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a federal panel that monitors safety at the DOE's nuclear weapons plants. They either have a bachelor's degree in a non-technical major or no college degree at all. "This is a problem that urgently needs attention," Crawford says. "You can't be an effective performer unless you know what you're doing." Crawford is not the first to express concern: 1989: An advisory committee on nuclear safety warned that DOE decision-makers were frustrated by "buffers of people who are not technically competent." 1991: Then Energy Secretary James Watkins warned President George Bush that the "technical knowledge and skills of many DOE managers and employees are not sufficient to do their jobs." 1993: The Office of Technology Assessment said the DOE's environmental restoration unit "has little capacity to assess contractors' performance in health and safety matters." 1996: The GAO fretted that technical problems at the DOE's Hanford site "have gone uncorrected for considerable periods, either because managers were unaware of the problems or because they were slow to take action on problems they knew about."In February of last year, a special committee of the National Research Council rated the DOE's cleanup effort below average at best. The performance of the DOE's Office of Environmental Restoration, the committee said, "falls short, not only of the ideal, but of the standard of reasonable effectiveness set by other organizations in both the public and private sectors."In the DOE's defense, the cleanup problems it faces today were a half century in the making. Department officials wince just thinking about the weapons plants built in the '40s, when the work was done in extreme haste, with little regard for the environment. Back then, American leaders thought Germany was on the verge of building the world's first atomic bomb. President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the Manhattan Project, convening the nation's best scientists and giving them virtually free rein to do as they saw fit-as long as they built the A-bomb first. The government paid staggering sums to build reactors and bombs at breakneck speed, and eventually won the race. After the war, the Atomic Energy Commission inherited the Manhattan Project plants, many already falling apart, their grounds badly polluted. These plants wound up inside the DOE after its founding in 1977.For years the department relied on the technical prowess of its hired contractors, often limiting itself to administrative duties. This approach worked fine at first, mainly because the DOE didn't have to worry about complying with environmental laws. It said making the nukes was an issue of national security, which took precedence over everything else.This started to change in the mid-'80s. The nation had all the nukes it needed, and the bomb factories were on their last legs. Then came the federal court ruling in 1984 that led the department to submit to federal and state environmental laws. Shortly thereafter, the Cold War ended, and the DOE's central mandate shifted from the production of nuclear weapons to cleaning up the 10 major sites and scores of smaller ones in its crumbling network.The department didn't realize what it was getting into. It had basically ignored the world's toughest anti-pollution laws for years. Then, virtually overnight, it had to follow them to the letter. After years of hands-off management, it was a rude awakening for DOE managers out in the field. They had to learn a tangle of new laws, and more importantly, they had to grapple with a hard-core science problem: how to design safe procedures for cleaning up some of the dirtiest sites on earth. This meant finding a way to scoop up the waste (without contaminating anyone), stabilizing it in some form, such as encasement in glass blocks, then finding a safe place to store it. So far, most procedures are still in the experimental phase. Not that it matters. The department has had little luck even getting to the cleanup stage. To date, its efforts have been largely limited to prep work: characterizing or describing wastes found at a site. But even that isn't going smoothly: "After more than 10 years and about $260 million invested in trying to characterize the tank wastes at Hanford, little definitive progress has occurred," the GAO said in January 1996.Nor is there much optimism that the situation will improve any time soon. "The department is running in place and spending $4 billion a year to do it," the National Research Council said the same month, "and this figure will grow if nothing is done."DOE officials bristle at that kind of talk, saying the department is grappling with numerous non-technical issues hampering cleanup efforts. Undersecretary of Energy Thomas Grumbly says the department has to devote $4.8 billion of its $6 billion annual cleanup budget just to keeping things safe and stabilized-monitoring waste tanks for noxious gases, keeping rain and burrowing animals out of the tanks-leaving just $1.2 billion a year for actual cleanup.Other analysts stress the tangled agreements that govern cleanup at the big sites. For example, in the late '80s and early '90s, DOE managers at Hanford had to negotiate and renegotiate an agreement to the satisfaction of two counter-parties, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Ecology. Simultaneously, it had to draw up strategies to get in compliance with a host of federal laws, including Superfund, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The result is a case of too many cops: Cleanup requirements are being applied willy-nilly by a gaggle of regulators, both federal and state, under a dizzying array of statutes and environmental rules. DOE managers get caught between conflicting demands. At many sites, efforts to comply with multiple, often repetitive regulations result in vast redundancies in the work performed, from report generation to sampling rates to testing. To complicate matters, the department has in a sense been betrayed by the system. There's a perverse incentive to keep cleanups going forever, because when the cleanup ends, so does the funding. "[Technical ability] is not the central problem behind the cleanup," says Andrew Caputo, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The larger problems are unsexy issues of incentives and management." While these side issues are certainly legitimate, they shouldn't obscure what the Safety Board-the one group that spends all its time studying DOE nuclear issues-has said time and again: that a lack of technical horsepower is the DOE's single biggest problem.Crawford hopes this message is finally sinking in. "We're not saying the DOE doesn't have enough people," he says, "We're saying it doesn't have enough people who are technically qualified."Over the years, the DOE has responded to such criticisms by beefing up its in-house training. With 29 of its offices offering training of some sort, the department lays out hundreds of millions of dollars a year on a dizzying array of programs, ranging from the essential (worker safety and cleanup tactics) to the not-so-crucial (assertiveness training and business writing).Ironically, most of this money is spent on the DOE's huge contractor workforce-contractors supposedly hired because they already knew what they were doing. The DOE's contract staff numbers 118,000 (dwarfing the department's 19,000-member employee base), and includes some titans of US industry: Allied Signal Inc., Bechtel Group Inc., Lockheed Martin Corp., Raytheon Co., Rockwell International Corp., TRW Inc., and Westinghouse Electric Corp.But the DOE can't tell you how much it spends training workers at these companies. There is no central database that tallies DOE training outlays, so the department isn't sure what it's getting for its money. Nor do the training dollars being spent on department employees seem to go toward the essentials. For instance, every year-in addition to its in-house training expenditures-the department foots the bill for dozens of high-priced seminars in management fads, things like "Total Quality Management" and Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." Congressional investigators have gotten wind of these outlays, and they want to know more. In a Dec. 20, 1995, letter, the then-chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, Pennsylvania Republican William Clinger Jr., requested information from Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary on all training since January 1, 1993, performed outside the department for the benefit of executive-level DOE employees. The DOE responded to Clinger's request with a stack of folders six inches thick. A rough survey of these documents found that the DOE paid for at least 48 Covey seminars between 1993 and 1995. The total bill for these sessions: $528,075.DOE officials say this training boosts teamwork and efficiency. "It has saved amazing amounts of time and money," says Tara O'Toole, the DOE's assistant secretary for environment, safety, and health.That may well be the case. But Crawford and others still wonder if it wouldn't be a better idea to use some of those training dollars to hire more scientists and others who actually know what they're doing right from the start. Who cares if DOE bureaucrats are highly effective people if front-line workers and managers don't know what they're doing?In a 1993 recommendation, the Safety Board urged the DOE to identify its technical needs and hire outside experts. The DOE made efforts in this area: For instance, it drew up detailed requirements for 23 key job titles ranging from "chemical processing specialist" to "nuclear safety systems engineer." This was a step forward. In the past, requirements varied significantly from one field office to the next.But progress has been slow. In 1995, the DOE filled just 33 of 400 slots reserved for technical specialists. And DOE staffers told the Safety Board in January 1996 that most people hired for technical posts have come from inside the department. Department officials say their efforts are dependent on employee turnover, and will start to bear fruit in the next year or two.Crawford calls this so much dilly-dallying. You can argue forever about rates of retirement and civil service rules and the merits of promoting from within, he says, or you can do what's right: Recruit technical experts from private industry, then give them enough money and support to get the job done. Pena, however, is clearly even less prepared to run Energy than he was Transportation, a point the media have had a field day with. The New Republic's Hanna Rosin, for example, skewered Pena with an anecdote about veteran DOE staffers using high-school physics texts to help the nominee cram for his confirmation hearings.But sending an unqualified individual to head up the nation's Energy Department isn't really funny. If Pena's boosterism was of limited use in Transportation, it will be of even less help in deciding issues such as how to deal with high-level radioactive waste disposal. And the fact that Hazel O'Leary, although more qualified, was considered even less effective than Pena is little comfort. One gets the feeling that Clinton has reserved the DOE as the darkened corner (or, as one attorney who works closely with the department calls it, "the Black Hole of Calcutta") into which he shuffles his least impressive, quota-satisfying Cabinet members. Of course, this doesn't seem to bother Republicans, who have made it clear that they have little use for the DOE and would just as soon see it dismantled and many of its functions placed under control of the Defense Department. With this in mind, you would think a concerned administration would have replaced O'Leary with a sharp, well-respected expert. With an effective leader, maybe the department could finally get down to addressing key issues such as getting its nuclear clean-up program on track and developing alternative energy sources, or at least maximizing use of the ones we have, so that the U.S. is less dependent on foreign oil.Instead, Clinton simply waved Pena in the direction of the confirmation hearings, and the Senate ushered him through, with just a token fuss over his lack of qualifications. This despite earlier warnings by the confirmation committee that the White House had better send them "a qualified nominee who can competently address nuclear waste issues and DOE control of our weapons programs." Federico Pena's principal qualification is his race. You know it. I know it. The folks in the administration know it. Of course, a couple of people I talked with pointed out that Pena has had experience running a federal department. Yes-and running it quite poorly, by all accounts. Having once done something should not be confused with having done something well.The Queen of SchmoozeThe choice of Alexis Herman for Secretary of Labor is an entirely different proposition. The only African-American woman nominated to the Cabinet, Herman is a major D.C. player whose experience with the Labor Department dates back to the Carter administration, when, at age 29, she became the youngest person ever to head the department's Women's Bureau. Her selection by Clinton, and the Senate's subsequent delay in setting a date for her confirmation hearing, were tracked closely by both civil rights and women's groups. To head off any urge Clinton might have to abandon Herman, the AFL-CIO and various civil rights and women's groups rallied, calling press conferences to condemn the hold up as both a racist slap and, as The Washington Post's Dorothy Gilliam characterized it, a clear case of "an eminently qualified woman" running up against "a political glass ceiling."Unlike Pena, Herman's professional qualifications haven't been of particular interest to Congress. Rather, the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee is fixated on the nominee's sketchy "outreach" activities while head of the White House Public Liaison's Office-many of which rode that increasingly blurry line between marshaling support for presidential policies and marshaling campaign donors. Naturally this is the point Republicans find most interesting, because it deals with the Democrat's fund-raising protocol and has the greatest potential for embarrassing the President and his heir apparent, Prince Albert. In its March cover story on Herman, The American Spectator (TAS), for example, questions her involvement with the much-scrutinized trade missions headed by one of Herman's mentors, the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. Notes TAS reporter Byron York, "Congressional investigators have long suspected that the missions functioned as Brown's payoff to corporations that had made big contributions to the DNC."Also of interest has been whether, in her pre-1993 private consulting work, Herman profited illegally from her many political connections. There's certainly no question that Herman is well-connected. When I asked a longtime friend of hers for the names of a few people to talk with about her qualifications to head Labor, he reeled off a list of patrons, colleagues, and supporters that reads like a page from Who's Who in African-American Politics: Jesse Jackson, Andy Young, David Dinkins, Willie Brown, Maynard Jackson. Introduced to civil rights politics at an early age-her father sued the Democratic party to win blacks the right to vote-Herman has enjoyed the patronage of the movement's various luminaries throughout her career. Jesse Jackson and Ron Brown are among the most frequently mentioned (especially since Jackson lobbied hard for Herman's Labor nomination). But perhaps just as noteworthy is Ernest Green. Currently under investigation by Congress and the FBI because of his ties to Chinese investment banker and arms dealer Wang Jun (one of the Asian businessmen suspected of trying to influence U.S. foreign policy with campaign donations), Green holds symbolic significance for Bill Clinton as one of the nine African-American students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Before entering the Carter administration, Herman was the head of the Minority Women Employment Program for Green's nonprofit training organization, RTP Inc. When Green went to Labor in 1977, Herman followed. Following the Reagan victory in 1981, the pair left the department and co-founded the marketing and consulting firm of Green-Herman. Then, after Clinton's election in 1992, Herman served as Green's deputy director of the Clinton transition team.>From Green (and later Brown), Herman learned the finer points of deal-cutting and navigating Washington's revolving door. As head of the Employment and Training Administration in Carter's Labor Department, Green may be best remembered for his involvement with the infamous "midnight contracts." In the weeks prior to Reagan's arrival at the White House, Green and his staff sent out hundreds of telegrams promising millions in discretionary CETA funds to organizations such as Green's former firm, RTP (which Green insisted had nothing to do with his former ties to the company), and Jesse Jackson's PUSH (which eventually fell apart for lack of evidence the organization was accomplishing anything). The department later rescinded many of the last-minute grants, but Green staunchly maintained that he had broken no laws. Subsequently, the newly formed Green-Herman consulting group went to work for a number of the organizations that had received these contracts, including PUSH. Green left the firm in the mid-80s. Herman changed its name to A.M. Herman & Associates and continued consulting, even after she was named Ron Brown's chief of staff at the DNC in 1989 (a situation rife with conflict of interest possibilities). During this period, she maintained her close business relationship with Jesse Jackson. All through the '80s, Jackson's PUSH frequently threatened boycotts against companies whose minority hiring practices it considered inadequate. Often, Jackson would recommend that the targeted company consult Herman's firm in order to improve their policies and practices. Eyebrows have also raised over reports that Herman profited from rules she wrote while in the Labor Department regarding mandatory minority ownership in federal contracts. Among the most notable (and lucrative) are D.C.'s multi-billion dollar Federal Triangle project and the Market Square construction project, in which Herman was given an ownership stake now worth more than $500,000. As each new question about her past emerges, Herman (a la Ernie Green) maintains that she has done nothing illegal.But although they make for hot headlines and tasty innuendo, the details of Herman's alleged financial and fund-raising misdeeds distract us from the larger problem: Alexis Herman is the consummate Washington player, the ultimate behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealer, well deserving of her long-standing reputation as "the queen of schmooze." (And Herman is the first to admit this. As she told an interviewer for Business Mexico following her all-female trade mission to Mexico last April: "I always say that contacts equal contracts.")What's wrong with that, you ask? Nothing, if you're the head of a lobbying firm-or the director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. But the Labor Department is not so much in need of a schmooze maister as a strong, motivated leader in the secretary's seat to focus attention on the concerns of the nation's workers. And, her considerable deal-making talents aside, Herman doesn't quite seem to fit the bill-something that labor leaders pointed out prior to her nomination. It's no secret that union groups initially opposed Herman, throwing their support behind former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford. Once Clinton put Herman's name up for consideration and the nominee drew fire from congressional Republicans, labor relented and came out in her favor. But according to one AFL-CIO official, the unions fear that Herman simply lacks the stature to be a strong, effective advocate for their issues. Or, as an administration staffer who dealt with Herman in the Public Liaison's Office notes: "She's too much of a lightweight for the job."The unions have also expressed concern that Herman, unlike Clinton's first-term labor secretary Robert Reich, lacks the commitment or inclination to fight for their interests. Although her early career was spent working to move women, and particularly minority women, into the workforce, Herman's primary experience with labor issues-both in government and as a private consultant-has been in designing workplace policy for businesses. And her work in the Liaison's office focused heavily on business outreach. (It is telling that, despite four years in a job where she was essentially paid to make friends for the President, Herman did not win the confidence or support of the unions.) Now more than ever, the American worker needs a friend in the Cabinet. Having fallen from its comfortable position of power in the 1980s, the organized labor movement is at a crucial point. Despite the efforts of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, membership is down, and unions have come under renewed political fire from the GOP for their efforts on behalf of Democrats last election. And although unions sometimes fall prey to corruption and parochial self-interest, they still play a vital role in protecting the interests of the average worker. What's more, a strong Labor Department could help encourage unions to stay focused on issues that benefit the overall workforce (and the nation) rather than on narrow union concerns. Nor is it just organized labor that stands to lose if the Labor Department inherits a secretary more interested in cutting deals than in shaping important policy. Under a Herman regime, the department's focus on issues that affect the working poor, such as the minimum wage and adequate child care and health care coverage, would not likely receive the attention they did under Reich. Similarly, Reich's fledgling attempts to overhaul the country's vocational education programs would likely fall by the wayside, as would his crusade to hold garment manufacturers accountable for the use of sweat shops in the creation of their products (an issue the garment industry has already expressed optimism that Herman will be "more open-minded" about).By nominating Herman for secretary of labor, President Clinton may have scored political points with women and civil rights groups-as well as with Herman's numerous well-connected friends. But where will her likely confirmation leave the Labor Department for the next four years? In this time of government bashing and budget cutting, without a strong leader focused on and committed to the important issues, Labor (and the working people whose interests it represents) runs the risk of becoming about as ineffective, pointless, and neglected as, say, the Department of Energy.Research assistance provided by Sherri Eisenberg.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.