Office of Environmental Management

Assistant Secretary White Delivers Remarks at Intergovernmental Meeting

December 4, 2018

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EM Assistant Secretary Anne White speaks at the 17th Annual Intergovernmental Meeting.
EM Assistant Secretary Anne White speaks at the 17th Annual Intergovernmental Meeting.

NEW ORLEANS – On Nov. 15th Assistant Secretary Anne White addressed participants at EM’s 17th Annual Intergovernmental Meeting. The meeting provided opportunities for increased communication among DOE, states, tribes, and local communities affected by the ongoing cleanup of the nuclear weapons complex. Following are White’s remarks:

   Good morning everyone. It’s great to be here and I see it as a tremendous opportunity to participate at the 17th Annual Intergovernmental Groups Meeting. I did want to take a quick moment to thank Rex Buck from the Wanapum for the beautiful words in your invocation. I also want to acknowledge the presence of other Tribal leadership here this morning. Specifically I want to acknowledge:

  • Council Member Edwin Lewis of the Yakama Nation
  • Secretary Casey Mitchell of the Nez Perce Tribe
  • Chairman Nathan Small of Shoshone-Bannock Tribes
  • Governor Perry Martinez of the San Ildefonso Pueblo
  • Lieutenant Governor James Naranjo of the Santa Clara Pueblo, and
  • First Lieutenant Governor Bryon Yeppa of the Jemez Pueblo

   I’d also like to thank the other Tribal leadership and staff from the Tribal Nations. Finally, I’d like to acknowledge all of our elected state and local leaders and administrators, and our regulators. Thank you for traveling great distances to attend this meeting.

   I’m glad I was able to meet with you yesterday to learn more about your issues. I recognize that each of your organizations plays a role on a wide range of priorities. With nuclear waste cleanup being only part of your portfolio, I appreciate the time you put into ensuring the success of EM’s mission. My goal here is to focus in on ways we can work together to improve the trajectory of cleanup as we wrap our arms around some uncomfortable facts and face some important decisions. Decisions that will have long-lasting impacts. Decisions that will require your input.

   Over the next two days the EM team and I will provide updates on the great work being accomplished by the men and women in the field and lay out our initiatives to achieve meaningful reductions in risks and environmental liabilities. It is my hope that we all come away from this meeting with an awareness of the impacts of EM’s mounting backlog of work, and a renewed sense of urgency to begin to work off the third biggest liability to the U.S. taxpayer — environmental liabilities.

   While it doesn’t always make headline news, progress through action is being made at each of our EM sites. From my time in industry, I understand where work gets done. It is not east of the Potomac, it is out in the field. Our Field Managers, staff and contractors are doing a great job progressing the baseline work scope — but we must do more.

   I’ve been fortunate to visit most of our sites, some more than once, during my time as EM-1. When I go to the sites, I see that people want to get the work done. That’s a natural tendency. I see it in the field all the time. It’s enthusiasm. That enthusiasm translates into progress across the board.

   Even with all this great work being done, and progress being made, EM still faces significant challenges. Cleanup progress is being significantly outpaced by ever-extending site closure dates, leading to increased environmental liabilities. Time equals money! As most of you heard me say yesterday, environmental liabilities represent the third largest liability for the U.S. taxpayer. EM makes up 84 percent of that total. Even with significant budgets, EM is swimming upstream. Rather than fight the current of environmental liabilities, risks, M&O hotel costs, lifecycle schedules, and to-go costs that we have all seen grow each year despite progress on the ground, it’s time to change the course of the river. The fact is, cleanup progress cannot outpace this current if EM stays on the same course it has been on for nearly 30 years.

   During the early years, EM was rightfully focused on figuring out what kinds of waste it had, how much it had and where it was. That evolved into cleanup plans and agreements with states and regulators based on the best available information and science at the time. At one point in our history, we were stemming the tide as we completed work at Fernald, Rocky Flats and Mound.

   This program, that we used to call a project, started in 1989. But we’re not here to discuss the EM of the past. At this point, we’ve all been at this a long time — this is the 17th (!) annual Intergovernmental Meeting. It’s time to modernize EM. Our knowledge and technology have matured significantly over the years. It’s time for EM, our regulators and our stakeholders to reexamine the assumptions and approaches made over the past two decades to determine the adequacy and appropriateness in today’s environment. We need to employ cleanup that is reflective of the latest knowledge in the areas of waste composition and risks, lessons learned over decades of cleanup and attainable end-states. It’s time to work together toward a future that will not simply enable EM to keep treading water – but will propel the mission forward and drive cleanup toward completion and closure.

   So, how do we get there? That’s a big part of what my team and I are looking at.

   It starts with abandoning vague notions of our challenges and truly getting to the bottom of what we are dealing with using accurate up-to-date information. As part of this effort, EM is looking 10 years out at what the barriers to success are and how they could be mitigated to drive to completion faster. I want us to consider the range of possibilities in terms of what could be achieved at sites across the complex if we are willing to reassess our assumptions, consider new approaches and disposal options and just think outside the box. EM is developing an options analysis to identify opportunities to complete cleanup work through more efficient, innovative or novel approaches over the next decade.

   EM does not intend this effort to slow down progress or abandon our obligations. The EM complex has several projects on track to meet our legal agreements and we will continue to progress those projects as agreed. Rather than being hamstrung, unilaterally, by doing things a certain way simply because that’s how it’s always been done, our EM site managers are rolling up their sleeves and looking beyond the present to reach the possible. They are doing it with a completion mindset focused on understanding how to best apply our resources to risks, clarify our regulations, and defining the best options to safely treat, dispose and contain waste today, in order to protect the next generation.

   To that end, I’ve asked our site managers to identify potential options within three scenarios, within a 10 year window:

  • the baseline case – uses current baseline and assumes no change in strategy from current operations
  • the optimized baseline case – incorporates realistic constraints, best effort towards site closure, well defined interim end-states
  • the unconstrained case – what it would take to get the site to closure in 10 years? This is possible at many of our sites. This case is designed to identify barriers and pinch points whether they be funding, regulatory, human capital or policy

   The analyses will be used as a basis for discussion with you and other stakeholders. During the site breakout sessions this afternoon, I have asked each field manager, as well as EM-3, to discuss this process and their plans to create a productive environment of partnership to achieve meaningful progress. I hope you will talk openly with them about your views on the remaining risks on site. We want to hear from you on how you would like to communicate and participate as we fight the EM liability current together. Know that this is a starting point in what will be a collaborative approach as the options analysis evolves. This process will include several opportunities for meaningful input and public comment next year.

   Now, I’d like to discuss an issue that I have been personally involved with for a long time — the interpretation of High-Level Waste. I am glad to see the Department moving the discussion on this forward after so many reports and recommendations from outside groups, including ECA. I hope that many of you will provide your unique insight into efforts underway to examine possible options to better manage and dispose of waste that has been stored at sites for decades with no near-term path forward.

   Last month the Department issued for public comment its interpretation of the statutory term high-level radioactive waste. An interpretation that would bring the U.S. more in line with definitions used by the rest of the world — having the option to classify waste based on its actual contents and associated risks vs. solely on the source of the waste. Yesterday, I heard a lot of concern from you about the public comment process. Some said, all we’ll get is more questions. Let’s turn that around — please turn your questions into comments and statements. This is but the first step in a process that must comply with existing regulatory requirements and law. In no case will the interpretation abrogate the Department’s responsibilities under existing regulatory agreements.

   I’m encouraged that you have a session on this topic tomorrow with Mark Senderling. I look forward to hearing more from all of you on this both here, and as part of your participation in the public comment period.

   EM is also taking steps to get the best value out of every cleanup dollar with which we are entrusted. Consistent with the Deputy Secretary’s initiative on Regulatory Reform, I have directed staff and the field to look at opportunities for change. Based on my experience in the field, this will lead to an enhanced safety culture because many of the reforms are common sense approaches that can streamline our work. I want to see EM drive down the operating and maintenance costs for our facilities, which takes up a significant portion of our annual cleanup budget, and instead plow those resources into actual cleanup work. As project lifecycle schedules drag out, aging facilities, components and equipment are stretching resources. It’s simple math — we can either put money towards cleanup or we can maintain aging facilities and build new, but we can’t do it all.

   Of course no cleanup work would happen if not for EM’s contract partners. One of our most transformative initiatives that I’ve undertaken is in the area of contracting. EM has billions of dollars in procurements coming up at some of our largest sites over the next few years, representing a significant opportunity to improve our procurement processes, contract management and oversight performance.

   Angela Watmore will talk more about contracting later today, but I’d like to briefly address the topic. End state contracting is not a contract type, but an approach to creating meaningful and visible progress through defined end states, even at sites with completion dates far into the future. This is intended to drive a culture of completion. With this new approach, EM will adhere to a “manage the contract, not the contractor” model. However, this means we must ensure we have the right contracts in place to allow Field Managers to drive contractor performance with a right-sized federal oversight model. I am hopeful that contract approach combined with the discussions we are having on the regulatory front will yield impactful results.

   Based on the experience and lessons learned in the last three decades of cleanup and advances in technology and approaches, there are opportunities to streamline and accelerate cleanup by pursuing strategies that are faster, more cost effective, and more technically sound, and would reduce risk to human health and the environment. We have opportunities to utilize tools available to work together on removing barriers to efficient cleanup. These could include CERCLA and RCRA integration at the end, aligning end-use to cleanup standards and recognizing that some areas will need to remain under government control in perpetuity, and streamlining our internal decision processes.

   In closing, I’m looking forward to a productive day of discussions. I’m going to be dropping in on all of the site breakout sessions. In addition to the field managers we will have senior DOE people sitting in on all of the sessions. I’m looking forward to a wrap-up on the breakout sessions and on how we continue this dialogue in a way that institutionalizes a completion mentality and moves us towards our many shared goals.

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