Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz was asked in a third congressional budget hearing Thursday about how a proposed fiscal 2016 budget cut would affect plans for cleaning up two key waste sites at Hanford in the area along the Columbia River.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., have each asked questions this month about cleanup of the 324 Building just north of Richland and the six-acre 618-10 Burial Ground six miles north of Richland just off the main Hanford highway.
Moniz has not directly answered the questions in any of the three hearings.
The Obama administration has released a budget request for fiscal 2016 that would increase spending by $202 million for Hanford’s underground tanks holding 56 million gallons of radioactive waste and the vitrification plant being built to treat the waste. That work is the responsibility of the Department of Energy Office of River Protection.
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But the DOE Richland Operations Office — responsible for all other Hanford work, including work along the Columbia River — would have spending reduced by $93 million, under the administration’s request.
That’s raised concerns about how much progress DOE could make to clean up the 324 Building, plus the highly radioactive spill beneath it, and the high hazard 618-10 Burial Ground.
Herrera Beutler, who represents the 3rd Congressional District with a southern border along the Columbia River downstream from Hanford, asked about plans for completing cleanup of the two sites Thursday at a hearing of the Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee.
The Richland Operations Office has a strong proposed budget, Moniz said. Progress has been made to clean up land along the river and to get the Plutonium Finishing Plant, which has been called the highest-risk facility at Hanford, closer to being torn down, he said.
It was much the same answer that he gave Newhouse at a Wednesday hearing of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Newhouse asked if DOE was committed to continuing work on the two projects with funding appropriated this fiscal year and in fiscal 2016.
When Cantwell asked Moniz about the two projects earlier this month, Moniz said he would have to check on what the schedule was for the 324 Building and the 618-10 Burial Ground.
Herrera Beutler kept pushing Thursday, asking if the proposed budget would keep some work from being completed on the two projects.
“I’ll be honest. Our environmental management budget, we have got plenty of other needs we would be happy to meet but the budget constraints are what they are,” Moniz said.
Hanford and other nuclear cleanup sites across the nation have many big problems to address, and the administration is trying to optimize work within a rational budget envelope, he said.
The Obama administration proposed a similar budget cut last year for the Richland Operations Office. Then Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., with the help of now retired Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., worked to get the money restored.
The final budget approved by Congress for fiscal 2015 should have sent a message that Richland Operations Office cleanup projects are a priority to Congress, Herrera Beutler told Moniz.
She also reminded Moniz that by law the two Hanford offices are separate entities and DOE is required to consider their budgets separately.
During the Wednesday hearing Moniz had talked about a $100 million increase for Hanford in the proposed budget because the increase for the Office of River Protection more than offset the cut to the Richland Operations Office.
“That is not how they are under the law,” Herrera Beutler said. “The community and the law don’t consider that a plus-up in the budget.”
DOE has been working to have most cleanup at Hanford along the Columbia River completed by September 2015, which is when the Washington Closure Hanford contract ends.
Mostly complex cleanup work remains near the river, including the two projects raised in the budget hearings. Work on the 324 Building was delayed after the spill was discovered beneath it.
No agreement has been announced to extend the Washington Closure contract to continue working on the remaining projects, with just seven months remaining in its contract.