House, Senate subcommittees disagree on Hanford budgets

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldJune 25, 2013 

A House subcommittee has approved a Hanford budget for next year that would keep spending at the same level as this year, when sequestration caused layoffs and furloughs.

However, the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee has approved spending about $82 million more than the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

While getting a final budget of that amount is unlikely given the federal budget climate, the higher amount proposed in the Senate could increase funding prospects if the House and Senate approve Hanford budgets and they are reconciled in a conference committee.

"I'm proud that I was able to work with my colleagues to include a strong funding level in the Senate appropriations bill in an extremely difficult budget climate," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in a statement.

"I will continue working to ensure Hanford has the federal resources needed to get the job done, but the significant differences between the funding levels proposed by the House and Senate will make it a tough task," she said.

The House subcommittee proposed increasing spending at the Hanford tank farms to $520 million, the largest increase in defense environmental management spending proposed for fiscal 2014.

The money is needed to address newly discovered leaks of radioactive waste from underground tanks and degraded ventilation and level monitoring systems in the tanks, according to the report accompanying the bill.

However, it would drop spending at the vitrification plant, being built to treat the waste for disposal, from the long-planned steady funding of $690 million to $675 million.

The reduction reflects the halt on construction at the plant's Pretreatment Facility until technical issues are resolved and "the lack of a clear overall plan to complete the facility, the continued failure to provide timely information and the continued management of the project without valid performance data against which it can track progress," the report said.

"I have always sought steady stable funding for (the vitrification plant), but full funding in any final bill is unlikely without a plan for the facility," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., in a statement.

He is hopeful that DOE is coordinating with the state of Washington and preparing to share a plan that includes basic questions about how much the plant is now expected to cost and when all of its facilities will be operating, he said. DOE has said the plant is unlikely to be completed for the most recently budgeted $12.2 billion.

"Long-sought details about the cost, schedule and work scope required to resolve technical issues and conduct testing must also be provided," Hastings said.

The extent of engineering issues at the plant is deeply troubling and DOE needs to make considerable improvement in its management of the project to ensure it will operate safely, the report said.

"The budget request provides little transparency into how the department is using its funding to advance the project or whether it is able to track and manage ongoing work," the report said.

A goal to have the plant treating tank waste for disposal as soon as possible led to construction being done on the plant as its design was being developed, which has resulted in costly reworking and schedule delays, the report said.

No money can be used to restart construction at the Pretreatment Facility until DOE can show the design is mature enough to prevent rework, the report said.

"The department should provide a full justification for any future request to restart construction before it has achieved 90 percent design completion that shows a clear commitment to prevent future waste of taxpayer funding," the report said.

To better control spending at the project, the bill would allocate spending by individual facilities and projects at the plant rather than allowing DOE flexibility to spend money on facilities where work is ready to go.

This spring, workers at the vitrification plant were warned that they might be forced to stop work for two weeks this summer because money was not available for work ready to be done. However, Congress agreed to "reprogram" already budgeted money among projects at the plant to allow work to continue uninterrupted and also allowed some money to be moved to tank work, allowing workers to be hired.

The reprogramming showed the value of allowing flexibility within Hanford spending, according to the Tri-City Development Council, which had asked for an end to the practice of "control points." Removing the restrictions would save money long term, it said.

The Senate budget proposal would provide the full $690 million for the vitrification plant and also increase the tank farm budget from $422 million to $520 million. It matches the Obama's administration's request to Congress for fiscal 2014.

For the rest of Hanford spending, the Senate budget proposal includes $962 million, up $37 million from the administration's budget request. The additional money would be used for the Plutonium Finishing Plant, K Basins sludge and community and regulatory support.

However, the House budget proposal would cut spending to $45 million below the administration's budget request for the rest of Hanford spending under the supervision of the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office.

The House would provide full funding for Hanford cleanup near the Columbia River, but legal deadlines at the Plutonium Finishing Plant likely would be missed at the House budget proposal level, Hastings said. The plant is required to be demolished to slab on grade by 2016 and work crews were cut this spring due to sequestration. As Congress continues to develop appropriations bills for 2014, Hastings will continue to work to secure more money, he said.

The report also raised concerns about a Department of Justice investigation into extensive timecard fraud at Hanford from 2005 to 2008.

The House Appropriations Committee "expects the department to more effectively oversee its contractors in order to safeguard the use of taxpayer funding against fraud, waste and abuse," the report said.

TRIDEC was pleased with the Senate budget proposal, which maintained balance across the site, said Gary Petersen, TRIDEC vice president for Hanford programs.

As attention is focused on leaky underground tanks and problems at the vitrification plant, TRIDEC has said that other environmental cleanup work at Hanford must not be slighted and that money should not be diverted from them to address tank problems.

The House budget proposal could be considered by the full House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, and the Senate budget proposal could go before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday. The budgets then would need to be passed by the House and Senate and differences reconciled.

"I'm extremely hopeful that we are going to see the first Congressional budget in four years," Petersen said.

However, if agreement is not reached, a continuing resolution that would continue spending at current levels is possible.

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