PHOENIX – The Department of Energy environmental cleanup program was born in 1989 from the alignment of a new presidential administration and energy secretary with the demands of a coalition of governors seeking creation of a national program to remediate DOE defense and research facilities.
Today, 30 years later, the Office of Environmental Management is a $7 billion enterprise that has completed work at 91 of its original 107 cleanup sites and is modernizing its efforts to complete the remainder.
Senior EM managers reminisced about the early days and provided a snapshot of the present-day during a 30th anniversary panel discussion at the 2019 Waste Management Symposia.
EM Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Mark Gilbertson recalled the early days of EM. Newly elected President George H.W. Bush appointed Admiral James Watkins as Energy Secretary with a charge to improve management of DOE defense programs and tackle environmental cleanup. On March 15, 1989, Leo Duffy was named special assistant, with a charge to develop the first five-year plan for cleanup.
Weeks later, Watkins received a letter from 10 governors of states home to DOE sites expressing concerns about cleanup and disposal of wastes at those facilities and calling for creation of a national remediation program.
“And that letter included a proposal for a solution that was incorporated into our strategies moving forward,” Gilbertson said.
“That’s the climate we were in,” Gilbertson said. “It was an exciting time. We recognized that we couldn’t do things the same way as was done before, and we had to tackle the environmental legacy around the complex.”
In December of that year, Bush declared an end to the Cold War which led to the downsizing of the nuclear complex and a focus on cleaning up sites that had served the mission, such as Rocky Flats in Colorado, the Fernald site in Ohio and the Pinellas Plant in Florida.
“It was a pretty dramatic time as we strove to bring more definition into the program so we could continue to make progress,” Gilbertson said.
Since 1989, “we’ve cleaned up a lot of sites,” Gilbertson said. “This sets the stage for where we are now. It’s time to move towards the future. We are trying to modernize our approaches to cleanup and to focus on completion.”
Gilbertson and other EM managers pointed to the end state contracting model being put in place by EM Assistant Secretary Anne White as an initiative with to accelerate cleanup and infuse a “completion mindset” into the program.
Betsy Connell, Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Regulatory and Policy Affairs, said EM is evaluating public comments on its high level radioactive waste interpretation proposal, another priority initiative.
Jeff Griffin, Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Field Operations, said changes are being made in the processes for evaluating contractor performance to ensure they are aligned with EM priorities, and in determining award fees intended to foster consistency. Also, “art of the possible” analyses underway at field sites are seeking to identify ways to further accelerate cleanup and reduce risks and liabilities.
“We challenged the site managers: How do we get out of your site in 10 years or less?” Griffin said. “You can’t throw out the laws of physics, but outside of that what would it take to get there?”
Steve Trischman, Director of Budget and Planning, discussed the trajectory of EM funding since its birth. The program has received $178 billion over its 30 years – in today’s dollars that amounts to about $245 billion. With that funding, he said, “we have made a lot of advances.”