Hastings hopeful for less painful Hanford budget

There still is hope that the Hanford nuclear reservation budget for fiscal 2012 may not be as grim as proposed layoffs indicate, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said Wednesday.

He spoke at the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce lunch in Pasco, also discussing the budget deficit, saving dams, Rattlesnake Mountain and the 2012 race for the presidency.

The Department of Energy is prudent to be prepared with no DOE budget passed for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, Hastings said.

DOE announced last week that it will allow environmental cleanup contractors to cut 1,100 jobs -- in addition to previously announced job cuts -- to give them flexibility. It does not want them to be caught short by budget cuts well into the fiscal year and then have to lay off more people to make up the money.

Hastings said money in the proposed 2012 budget for Hanford has not been correctly prioritized.

The Senate has yet to act on the DOE budget. But the House has passed an appropriations bill that would cut $20 million from the Hanford budget, on top of the end of $1.96 billion in federal economic stimulus money.

It's the tank farms that would be particularly hard hit as the House budget reduced proposed spending to $408 million, which is $113 million below the administration's budget request.

Washington River Protection Solutions, which operates the tank farms storing 56 million gallons of radioactive waste underground, has announced it will cut up to 475 jobs by mid-October to prepare for a worst-case budget scenario. Those would be part of the total 1,100 job cuts recently authorized by DOE.

But Hastings secured a commitment in July from Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, the chairman of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, to work with him to modify the balance of funding between the tank farms and the vitrification plant in July. That could mean more money for the tank farms and jobs saved there, but a cut to the $740 million proposed for the vitrification plant in the House budget.

When Congress returns to Washington, D.C., in September, it will get back to work on the budget deficit, Hastings said. The House or Senate will propose and pass a balanced budget amendment, and the other will vote on the same measure, he said.

The Natural Resource Committee, for which he serves as chairman, also will be making recommendations to Congress' debt reduction supercommittee, including a recommendation on energy production, he said. Hastings is on record as supporting more drilling, but he also said Wednesday that energy production should include an "all of the above" mix of resources.

He believes the supercommittee may come back with a recommendation to flatten the tax code, which would mean fewer tax deductions and dropping the tax rate. It is a policy he could support if it is revenue neutral, he said.

He criticized U.S. District Court Judge James Redden for rejecting the latest plan for protecting endangered Columbia River salmon runs and also raising the issue of removing Snake River dams.

"The only one who can remove dams is the U.S. Congress," Hastings said. "I happen to be chairman of the committee it would have to pass. I can tell you it won't pass. I can tell you it won't even get a hearing."

Asked about access to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain, Hastings said it was appropriate for the federal government to close it to the public when Hanford was producing plutonium, but those days are past. The top of Rattlesnake Mountain is in the security zone around Hanford.

He will continue to push for legislation to allow public access in some form to the mountain, the tallest point in the Mid-Columbia, he said.

Hastings also was asked to predict who would emerge as the challenger to Obama in the 2012 election.

"A Republican," Hastings answered to laughter.

"I will support whoever our candidate is," he said.