Hastings questions Hanford land transfer policies

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldDecember 11, 2013 

Recent policy changes to transfer surplus Department of Energy land could create more cost and risks for local communities like the Tri-Cities, said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash, in a letter sent Wednesday to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

The letter was written before Hastings received additional bad news about efforts to transfer 1,641 acres of surplus Hanford land to allow industrial development and help replace jobs lost as Hanford environmental cleanup progresses.

Hastings had included an amendment requiring that DOE move ahead with the transfer of land in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2014, which was passed by the House. Congressional approval is not needed for a land transfer, but the amendment was intended to speed up DOE action on land no longer needed for defense activities.

However, the Senate failed to pass a companion defense authorization bill.

Instead, a new bill was crafted this month for the House and Senate to consider. Released late Tuesday night, it failed to include the Hanford land transfer requirement.

Hastings plans to again insert the language into the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act and in the meantime is asking for answers about the policy revisions announced in November. They take effect Friday.

DOE has said the changes are limited to revisions to clarify regulations.

But the changes harm rather than help, according to the letter, which also was signed by five other congressmen with defense nuclear sites in their districts.

Among the changes are eliminating a 90-day deadline for DOE to make an initial response to land transfer requests and removing indemnification protections from communities, according to critics of the changes. The new rules also attempt to clarify which land could be transferred.

"The potential negative impacts of these changes could affect the sites and communities we represent for generations to come," the letter said. "We are very concerned that these changes were made without input from the very communities that the underlying law was intended to help."

The letter asks that DOE seek input from impacted communities before moving ahead with the modifications to land-transfer policy.

TRIDEC is waiting for a decision on its request for 1,641 acres of Hanford land, most of it proposed for green manufacturing or energy production just north of Richland. That land is among limited Hanford acreage planned for future industrial use, with more than 90 percent of the reservation set aside for conservation and restoration.

TRIDEC, designated by the federal government as a community reuse organization for Hanford, made the request in cooperation with local governments two and a half years ago and anticipates a final decision would take another year, said Gary Petersen, TRIDEC vice president of Hanford programs.

DOE needs to ensure that any modifications to existing regulations help DOE take more timely action, the letter said.

"Yet these changes appear to do exactly the opposite by abandoning deadlines altogether," the letter said.

The changes could increase chances that the land will remain locked up under federal control into perpetuity, the letter said.

At Hanford and other nuclear defense sites, the federal government took over privately owned land during World War II for the Manhattan Project effort to develop an atomic bomb.

The land should be returned to the communities as the land is cleaned up, the letter said.

"There is no better way for the department to demonstrate that cleanup at these sites has been successful, than to return the land for economic and beneficial use by the communities," the letter said.

The modifications not only are vague enough to add increased uncertainty to the transfer process, but also invite lawsuits from those who would prefer the lands remain closed and under federal control, the letter said.

The letter asked DOE to answer several questions, starting with the purpose for the modifications.

Those who signed the letter want to know why the deadline for DOE was eliminated and what DOE's new schedule will be for considering requests.

The letter also requests more information about why language regarding indemnification of land was altered and a list of the sites that could be impacted.

Representatives signing the letter in addition to Hastings were Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn.; Joe Wilson, R-S.C.; John J. Duncan, Jr., R-Tenn.; Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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