RICHLAND -- Black shrouds were hung over Hanford exhibits at the CREHST museum in Richland on Thursday, hiding them from visitors.
That may be just the start of what visitors cannot see.
The entire museum is in danger of closing within a year because of a drastic cutback in federal money to the museum, said Ellen Low, museum executive director.
In the fiscal year just ended, CREHST received $331,000 in Department of Energy money, but that has been cut in the fiscal year that started Oct. 1 to $80,000. The museum's annual budget with the $80,000 is $375,000.
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The $80,000 leaves enough money to do about half the Hanford curating -- preserving and conserving Hanford artifacts for the future -- the museum did last year.
But it does not pay for display of Hanford exhibits, according to CREHST.
"If we are not being paid to display the Hanford story, we are not able to show the story," Low said, explaining the reason for the shrouds.
However, Mission Support Alliance said that how the $80,000 would be used by CREHST still is being negotiated. Mission Support Alliance has the Department of Energy contract that covers collection, care and display of Hanford artifacts, and subcontracts some of the work to CREHST.
Already CREHST has cut two full-time employees who were educated in conservation and other museum specialties and they will return later this month to their homes in Arizona and Wisconsin.
"They are a valuable resource that we are very sorry to lose," Low said.
The museum also has reduced hours for its core staff to four-day weeks. It continues to employ five full-time and four part-time employees.
"Even at this we are in serious doubts about how long we can actually stay open with this lack of funding," Low said.
The Department of Energy Hanford Richland Operations Office, which oversees curating and display of Hanford artifacts, is facing a reduced budget for the fiscal year just begun, said Colleen French, DOE Hanford government affairs program manager.
Although Congress has failed to pass a fiscal 2012 budget yet, the Richland Operations Office expects to receive about $300 million less than that $1.3 billion it needs to meet legal requirements for environmental cleanup.
The Hanford nuclear reservation was used during the Manhattan Project and Cold War to produce plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program, including the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, helping end World War II.
To prepare for the reduced budget, the DOE office did an extensive budget scrub of all programs being paid for in fiscal 2011, to find savings for this year to help pay for work needed to meet Tri-Party Agreement deadlines and to continue work at the Plutonium Finishing Plant.
"Tri-Party Agreement compliance is ourNo. 1 obligation," French said.
Mission Support Alliance took the biggest hit among Richland Operations Office contractors, as DOE looked for savings. Its work is not directly tied to the Tri-Party Agreement, French said. The contractor, which provides sitewide services, is expected to have to cut$50 million from its budget this year.
Because of the budget cuts, it is putting its emphasis in historical work in collecting artifacts from buildings that are about to be torn down as part of Hanford cleanup, said Rae Weil, Mission Support Alliance spokeswoman.
The remaining budget for Hanford artifacts would cover work to identify, collect and appropriately store them, which is required by federal law, French said. But it would not allow for planned programs at CREHST under a Mission Support Alliance subcontract such as consolidating artifacts from multiple locations to one, updating record keeping and digital photography of artifacts.
Federal law also does not require the display of artifacts. However, Mission Support Alliance is required in its contract with DOE to provide for a 2,000-square-foot display of Hanford artifacts in Richland for at least four hours a day for 250 days a year. In the past, that requirement had been met at CREHST.
No part of the community seems to have been left untouched by Hanford budget cutbacks, French said. At Hanford, about 2,000 workers have been laid off since spring because of the end of Recovery Act spending and the uncertain fiscal 2012 budget.
The reduced budget for CREHST does not signal a loss of commitment to telling the history of Hanford, she said.
"We think CREHST has done a great job of displaying artifacts in the past," she said.
Hanford displays that now are shrouded at the museum include displays featuring Dupus Boomer, a newspaper cartoon series about the hardships of early Hanford workers, and the alphabet houses, the homes designated by letters of the alphabet that were designed and built for Hanford workers when Richland was owned by the federal government.
However, the museum continues to be open seven days a week, Low said.
The museum will be able to survive for some time on its reserves, but not for longer than a year without finding additional money, she said.
It plans to apply to Richland for one of its lodging tax grants, which are available for operators of tourist facilities, and will be seeking more donations to try to close the $157,000 budget gap for the current year.
"Our docents are standing by us and will continue to greet visitors, in hopes that the shrouding of the galleries will be a short-term effort," Low said.
Visitors still can see the hands-on science display, the Ice Age Flood painting display and displays on early Richland, Native Americans and natural history and visit its gift shop.
"We don't want to have to rely on handouts," she said. "We would like to be paid for the work which we are qualified to do, work for which we have a proven track record."
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; email@example.com; more Hanford news at hanfordnews.com