The Department of Energy is changing the rules for the Hanford Advisory Board, to the dismay or anger of most of its board members.
Initially, that would include term limits for members representing some Hanford employees on the board and the general public.
However, DOE Hanford officials and DOE Headquarters officials are continuing talks on additional changes to the board, with the wish for changes driven by officials in Washington, D.C., rather than at Hanford. DOE declined to say what other changes are being discussed.
"A promise was made to the board four years ago. The promise was not kept," said Jeff Luke, who represents non-union, nonmanagement employees on the advisory board.
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The Hanford Advisory Board was formed almost 19 years ago, before policies were made that cover DOE boards across the nation.
In 2008, the Hanford board agreed to a revised charter after two years of discussions with DOE, after DOE unilaterally imposed term limits.
The compromise reached did not have the term limit language, which some board members said then appeared to be an attempt by some in DOE to get rid of members with opinions it disliked. DOE said then that changes were needed to meet legal and policy requirements, but ultimately allowed the board to continue operating differently than more recently formed advisory boards.
The board considers Hanford issues and then reaches consensus on what it believes DOE and its regulators should be doing. It's fought for issues such as better worker protection from contaminants and cleaning up environmental contamination rather than leaving it in place with engineered caps to keep it from spreading toward groundwater.
Board members misunderstood what the promise was in negotiations four years ago, said Cate Alexander, the designated federal officer for the eight Environment Management Site Specific Advisory Boards, which includes the Hanford board. She attended the Hanford Advisory Board meeting Thursday and Friday in Kennewick.
Term limits were taken off the table earlier but that did not mean "never," she said. Some federal officials believe some turnover on the board is needed, she said.
There is a large community in the Tri-City with full-time jobs and who are raising families who cannot be involved, and ethnic, racial and gender diversity can benefit boards, she said.
"I cannot emphasize how much people from underrepresented communities contribute to a board," she said.
Other boards have a tremendous orientation process and a greater sensitivity to a range of technical knowledge, she said.
The Hanford Advisory Board continually is called out as a technical board, but that is not the case, said Ken Niles, who represents the state of Oregon on the board.
Members with a technical background are the minority he proved with a show of hands, and the rest of members have had to learn about technically complex issues, he said.
The board is diverse by its structure, which is different from newer boards, said members.
Seats are assigned to groups representing interests, such as Hanford-area cities and governments, organized labor, public health, regional environmental and civic groups, universities and area tribes. Those groups pick their own members, which DOE approves.
However, among the 32 seats on the board are seats for the public-at-large and Hanford workers, which have no group to pick them and are targeted for new limits of three two-year terms.
For the Hanford worker seats, which are restricted to nonunion and union members, the members and alternate positions include workers who have been on the board since 1997, 2006, 2011 and 2012.
Most board members and alternates are expected to devote 20 hours a month to the board, but many devote more time. The positions are not paid and only some costs are reimbursed.
"I have a wife at home with Alzheimer's," said Keith Smith, a public member of the board with a reputation for advocating for the safety of workers. "I would not be sitting here if I did not think it was important."
Rebecca Rubenstrunk, one of the alternates for four public seats, said she had not heard anything specific from DOE about what it believes is wrong with the diversity of the board.
"I'm skeptical of just rotating people in and out in the name of diversity," she said.
Others pointed out that about a third of the board is female, it has seats reserved to represent the tribes and it has a range of ages.
The board has been unsuccessful in recruiting Hispanic members, but that has not been for lack of trying, said Dennis Faulk, the Environmental Protection Agency Hanford program manager, and several board members.
Evening meetings could increase diversity, Alexander said. Now the board typically meets in series of daylong sessions, usually in the Tri-Cities, to reduce travel costs since the board's region includes all of Oregon and Washington.
Board members pointed out that Hanford is the nation's largest environmental cleanup site, and what works for much smaller sites may not work at Hanford, where there is so much complex information for board members to understand and discuss.
"The Hanford Site is so unique, why would the board not be unique?" Niles said.
DOE appears to be "cherry picking" which policies it wants to enforce, he said. For instance, DOE policy is not to control the board, he said. Policy also requires providing money to the board for technical assistance, which DOE is not doing, he said.
The change to term limits caught some board members by surprise, and there was no chance to vet a message to DOE through the usual process that starts with crafting it in committee.
But board members adapted a letter written by Liz Mattson, who represents Hanford Challenge on the board, with members agreeing to its content, although some said they could not support the written advice since it was not developed through the usual process.
DOE should not impose term limits but work with the board if it wants changes, the board said. Solutions to provide diversity could include looking at attendance to see if seats could be opened up, adding another board position for the public or encouraging groups represented on the board to consider diversity as they choose new members for the advisory board.