Hanford

Sen. Wyden urges tougher Hanford response from IG nominee

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., recently toured the Hanford tank farms to learn more about chemical vapors and other topics.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., recently toured the Hanford tank farms to learn more about chemical vapors and other topics. Courtesy Sen. Ron Wyden staff

Answers to questions about Hanford from a nominee for a key Department of Energy position failed to impress Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., at a committee hearing Thursday.

He pressed for specifics about how Susan Beard, nominated to become the DOE inspector general, would improve safety and protect whistleblowers at Hanford. She appeared before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Not satisfied with her answers, Wyden asked her to provide more information within 72 hours about specific actions she might take.

Wyden and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the ranking member of the committee, focused on possible worker exposure to chemical vapors at Hanford and protecting workers who raise issues from retaliation.

“The inspector general must be able to identify the department’s failings, recommend corrective actions and ensure progress is being made to correct problems,” said Cantwell, ranking member of the committee.

Issuing all the reports in the world does not make a difference if action is not taken on them.

Susan Beard, nominated as DOE inspector general

She brought up Hanford’s history of leaking nuclear waste tanks, missed environmental cleanup deadlines and workers exposed to chemical vapors. About four dozen workers have had medical evaluations in recent weeks for possible exposure to vapors.

Worker safety issues have been raised in as many as 16 DOE Office of Inspector General reports, Cantwell said. Yet a culture to address them has not been created, she said.

“Issuing all the reports in the world does not make a difference if action is not taken on them,” agreed Beard, who has managed the DOE’s ethics program for almost two decades. For the past 13 years, she also has provided legal advice on DOE workforce issues.

If confirmed, she would conduct a more robust follow-up of whether DOE is implementing recommendations in Office of Inspector General reports, she said. Progress would be tracked, and Congress and the energy secretary would know if DOE fell short.

Wyden he said he had heard that before. If Beard said she would set up a timetable to implement recommendations after a report was issued, that might sound like something would change, he said.

He said he had real questions about a nominee who had been at DOE for 27 years when there is such a need to change policies and produce accountability.

Because confirmation would be tantamount to a lifetime appointment, the bar for an IG nominee is especially high.

Senate committee chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Ala.

“You are going to walk into an area where you see a huge array of pressing safety concerns at a time when vast sums of money are going to be going out the door,” Wyden said. “This has been the case for decades now and it doesn’t seem like much is going to change.”

Last week he met with several Hanford tank farm workers exposed to chemical vapors. They said they had been threatened with losing their jobs, Wyden said.

It’s easy to see why they would be worried about retaliation, given highly publicized cases of whistleblower retaliation across the DOE complex, he said.

Beard agreed that whistleblowers have an important role and should be able to come forward without fear of retaliation. The Office of Inspector General has looked at DOE whistleblower issues before and she will continue the work and make sure the issue is handled promptly, she said.

“I hope in writing you will tell me specifically what would change because the answer you gave me on that point was virtually identical to what I’ve heard from individuals with respect to this position year after year,” Wyden said.

Beard is nominated to replace Gregory Friedman who retired after serving as DOE inspector general for 17 years.

“Because confirmation would be tantamount to a lifetime appointment, the bar for an IG nominee is especially high,” said committee chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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