Our Voice: Mattis could be a new voice for Hanford

In setting up his Cabinet, President-elect Donald Trump has arranged a situation in which the person picked to lead the Department of Energy has less understanding about the work at the Hanford site than the person chosen to be secretary of defense.

While DOE operations will be outside of his purview, we hope that retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, a Richland native, could somehow find a way to share his knowledge of the Hanford nuclear reservation with Trump and his team.

Delicacy would be required, of course. But Mattis likely is our best hope at helping educate Trump and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry about the complexities and importance of Hanford's mission.

The alarm bells went off almost at once in the scientific community when Trump announced Perry as his choice for energy secretary.

Typically, department heads have some grounded knowledge about the agencies they run. For instance, the current DOE secretary, Ernest Moniz, is a highly respected nuclear physicist.

Perry, on the other hand, has a reputation for being a political champion of oil and fossil fuel industries, and is known for his public denial that humans are to blame for climate change.

In his failed run for the 2012 presidency, Perry infamously said there were three federal agencies he wanted to dismantle. The Department of Energy was one of those (although he couldn’t remember the name) — and now he is slated to be put in charge of it.

We hope he soon understands that the majority of DOE’s budget goes toward national security issues — like managing the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal and cleaning up toxic waste at old nuclear production sites like the Hanford Site.

Mattis could help with that, if Perry and Trump would listen.

Mattis served for four decades in the Marine Corps and was head of U.S. Central Command before retiring in 2013. He oversaw wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Trump said in an Associated Press story that Mattis is the “closest thing to Gen. George Patton that we have.”

He also grew up in Richland, graduated from high school there and still maintains a residence in the community. He has been a devoted volunteer with the Tri-Cities Food Bank, and also reported for jury duty in Benton County just before Thanksgiving.

With his strong Tri-City ties, Mattis must appreciate the importance of the Hanford Site, as well as the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, which is also under DOE management.

Knowing Mattis might have the ear of the president brings some comfort to those of us concerned about what direction Perry will take as energy secretary.

Scientists and lawmakers already are anxious about his nomination, so it didn’t help when a questionnaire recently was sent to DOE asking about its responsibilities — including cleanup efforts at Hanford — as well as names of employees who attended meetings on climate change issues.

Many in the community thought this looked like a witch hunt. DOE wisely said it will not provide any individual names to the transition team, but will provide public information.

And while the Presidential Transition Office has since said it did not authorize the questionnaire, the damage has been done. Tension is in the air, and it is unsettling.

Mattis so far appears to have the respect of Trump and many lawmakers who are already backing his nomination.

If there is any way he can be a voice for the Hanford Site and alleviate the community's anxiety, he needs to make the effort.

His hometown is counting on him.