NMED To Discuss Cleanup with Top DOE Official

DOE Reneges on Cleanup Budget Agreement

* New Mexico Environment Department (or NMED) head Ron Curry announced recently that he is planning to meet with Jessie Roberson, assistant secretary for environmental management for the Department of Energy (or DOE), soon to address the inadequate cleanup progress of DOE sites in New Mexico. NMED issued a cleanup order to Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) and Sandia National Laboratory. NMED claims the sites agreed to the order, but it has since gone largely ignored. Curry says, "What we are asking them to do now is to step up and actually put some actions behind their words."

Due to the inaction at the sites, Governor Bill Richardson ordered NMED to begin a dialogue with DOE headquarters. As a preliminary step, NMED's deputy secretary Derrith Watchman-Moore met with Kyle McSlarrow, deputy secretary of the National Nuclear Security Administration, to tell him that NMED is going to be watching the DOE sites in New Mexico more closely than it has in the past. Curry said that the new administration signifies "a new and different time in New Mexico and we hope [DOE recognizes] that."

LANL and Sandia sued NMED regarding the cleanup orders. However, negotiations are moving at slower pace than Curry is satisfied with; but he remains optimistic that the cleanup will proceed.

Curry said, "We want people to understand that [NMED] is going to do everything it can to protect the environment and the people of New Mexico."

* DOE recently announced that it would not honor a budget agreement it made in 1996 with the large contaminated sites within its nuclear weapons complex. DOE agreed to maintain a large and steady cleanup budget for some of its smaller sites, including Fernald in Ohio and Rocky Flats near Denver, and to complete cleanup at those sites by 2006. After 2006, the excess funds from those smaller cleanups would be transferred to cleanup activities at larger DOE facilities, including LANL and Hanford Nuclear Reservation. However, DOE now says that it will not transfer those excess funds, but will instead cut its cleanup budget after 2006.

The plan was meant to accelerate cleanup at smaller facilities while providing for the future cleanup of the larger, which require more funding. It was embraced by the larger DOE facilities, like Hanford, because it provided stability to their unstable cleanup budgets. The plan guaranteed that the larger sites would receive at least the extra cleanup money available after 2006, as long as cleanup spending remained stable until then. Instead, DOE's budget has been steadily rising since current Secretary Spencer Abraham took office in 2001, and is expected to peak in 2005. The budget is then expected to begin slowly dropping to between $5 and $6 billion by 2008, which is less than the cleanup budgets of the late 1990s.

DOE claims that they are not reneging on their promise to the larger facilities. Nevertheless, Hanford regulators are disappointed in the news. Mike Wilson, nuclear programs manager for Washington's Department of Ecology, said, "It's just another thing that [DOE] promised that never came to pass."

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