Saving money not reason for moving Hanford employees, DOE says

The Department of Energy is planning to move most of its employees out of the Federal Building at 825 Jadwin Ave. in Richland after more than 50 years there.
The Department of Energy is planning to move most of its employees out of the Federal Building at 825 Jadwin Ave. in Richland after more than 50 years there. Tri-City Herald

Moving about 350 Department of Energy and subcontractor employees out of the Richland Federal Building to space being vacated by other Hanford employees is not intended to save federal dollars, DOE officials say. It’s about improving communications among workers at two Hanford agencies.

DOE has stepped up communication about the move, which originally was planned to have started by now, after an anonymous letter criticizing the change was circulated through offices of Tri-City officials, Washington’s congressional delegation and the media. The letter says it reflects input from dozens of longtime federal employees, who question the move’s cost and logic.

DOE’s goal is to move most Hanford DOE employees into three nearby buildings in the same north Richland office complex. The aim is to build strong working relationships and encourage more face-to-face discussions and meetings as employees work through tough, complicated issues, according to a memo sent out by Doug Shoop, the new manager of the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office.

For almost 51 years, the Richland Operations Office has directed Hanford work from the Federal Building on Jadwin Avenue in Richland.

However, since a second DOE Hanford office, the Office of River Protection, was created in 1998, its workers have been based at a building in the Stevens Center complex in north Richland. Work to empty 56 million gallons of radioactive waste from underground tanks and treat it for disposal at a planned vitrification plant was separated from the rest of Hanford work to allow more focus on the complex project.

Shoop now wants the staffs closer together, particularly as most work by both DOE offices will be done in the same 10 square miles of central Hanford, perhaps as soon as three years from now. Most of the cleanup of the 220 square miles along the Columbia River is complete.

Costs of the move could add up to as much as $4.88 million, according to estimates in documents obtained by the Herald and discussed with DOE officials.

We are looking for the most cost-effective way to make the move and that is critical.

Doug Shoop, Richland Operations Office manager

Most of the Hanford Richland Operations Office employees in the Federal Building would move to the 2420 and 2430 Buildings in the Stevens Center complex. Those buildings have been used for some of the staff of Hanford contractors at Mission Support Alliance, CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. and Washington River Protection Solutions.

Some of those employees already have moved or will move to other office buildings, but many will move into Federal Building space being vacated by the Richland Operations Office.

The cost of moving Mission Support Alliance employees is forecast at $1.78 million, which also may include some costs of moving employees as it ends an information technology subcontract with Lockheed.

Documents show the cost of the move for CH2M Hill to be $1.6 million.

DOE estimates its costs at about $500,000. In addition, it is expected to need to pay for undetermined remodeling costs in the 2420 and 2430 Buildings, including replacing some cubicles with walled offices. With a firm cost not available, $1 million is being used in cost estimates. That cost likely would be spread through rent increases over three years.

However, DOE is arguing that much of the move will be done using Teamsters, carpenters, information technology specialists and others already on the Hanford payroll. Although labor costs are a major portion of the estimates, those employees would be paid with federal money whether they were helping with the move or doing other Hanford work, DOE officials said.

The estimate for CH2M Hill includes $350,000 for the move team, which DOE argues is a sunk cost, which means that money must be spent no matter whether the move occurs. In addition, employees are each expected to spend five hours packing and unpacking in the move, with those costs coming to $110,000, which is part of their usual pay.

A DOE document outlining the costs also includes $610,000 for new carpeting, carpet cleaning and painting at the Federal Building. But when DOE was asked about the estimated costs of the move, officials said DOE would not be paying for carpeting and painting costs.

The move is proposed as DOE is unable to make payments in lieu of taxes to local governments, but DOE officials say that the move has no bearing on its ability to make the payments, which come from money allocated by Congress for community support.

Some carpeting and painting will be done at the Stevens Center buildings, but the private owner is obligated to pay for them under lease requirements.

“We are looking for the most cost-effective way to make the move, and that is critical,” Shoop said in his employee memo.

The majority of the furniture will remain where it is now, whether in the Stevens Center buildings or the Federal Building, DOE said.

Shoop calls it a “box move,” saying employees will box up files and other items they intend to bring to their new offices.

DOE officials say rent costs, other than the increase to pay for some remodeling at Stevens Center, will remain about the same when contractor and DOE costs are totaled.

Although the Federal Building uses security guards who screen people and any items being brought into the lobby, the Richland Operations Office buildings at the Stevens Center will use a system similar to that of the Office of River Protection there. Door cards are scanned to get into buildings, and receptionists are on duty.

The move is planned as DOE has notified local governments that it may be able to pay as little as 20 percent of the $9.5 million it is being billed this year for payments in lieu of taxes that go to local governments, including schools.

The money is intended to cover taxes that local governments would collect if the 580 square miles of the Hanford nuclear reservation were under private ownership.

DOE officials say the move does not affect its ability to make PILT payments, which come from money specifically allocated by Congress for community support. That fund is separate from the budget categories that will pay the moving costs.

I don’t want to give the illusion that it will have no cost ... but I think the benefits of moving are very, very significant.

Doug Shoop, Richland Operations Office manager

DOE officials say they are continuing to press for congressional “reprogramming” of money, which would allow Hanford cleanup funds to be transferred to cover PILT payments.

The proposal now is with the White House Office of Management and Budget and has not been forwarded to Congress.

DOE officials have announced plans to increase communication on the move by meeting with groups of employees, giving weekly updates and creating an internal website with background information and a frequently asked questions section.

“About half of our employees already work with ORP (Office of River Protection) on a daily or weekly basis..., whether in infrastructure, legal, cyber security, budget or contracts,” Shoop said in the employee message.

The congressional order authorizing Hanford’s Office of River Protection sunsets in three years, although Congress previously has extended it. If the offices are recombined, DOE will be well-positioned by having most staff at the Stevens Center complex, Shoop said.

Even if they are not recombined, employees of both offices will be working more closely together because most of the remaining cleanup work will be in the center 10 square miles of Hanford that contain underground waste tanks and the vitrification plant being built to treat radioactive waste.

In that area, the Richland Operations Office is responsible for tearing down large plutonium processing plants, cleaning up soil contaminated with plutonium and areas where contaminated liquid was dumped, and for digging up waste burial grounds and cleaning up contaminated groundwater.

DOE expects to have a final moving schedule at the end of September.

“I don’t want to give the illusion that it will have no cost,” Shoop said. “But I think the benefits of moving are very, very significant.”

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews