Many Oppose DOE Proposal to Dismantle Office of Environment, Safety and Health
The Office of Environment, Safety and Health (ES&H) within the Department of Energy (DOE) is in charge of establishing health and safety rules for the agency and contractor employees. It also oversees health studies, medical screening programs and environmental impact statements related to agency activities.
Under a DOE plan, these responsibilities would be allocated to other offices, but most specifically the Office of Safety and Security Performance Assurance (SSA). Under the plan the Office of ES&H will no longer have the leadership of its own assistant secretary devoted entirely to the safety and health of workers, but will report to the Office of the SSA Director. The security office primarily manages headquarters security operations, inventory and control of special nuclear materials, classified information and other security programs.
The plan is detailed in a recent DOE report prepared by the Office of SSA. The report states that the Office of ES&H should be dismantled because it has become redundant and ineffective. It states that incorporating the Office of ES&H into the Office of SSA would be the final step in a process which has been slowly occurring for some time.
However, many disagree. In a letter to Energy Secretary Bodman, New Mexico Governor and former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson states, "given the absence of any external studies demonstrating that [the Office of ES&H] is dysfunctional or ineffective, there appears to be no compelling reason to reduce or change its function."
Under Richardson, the Office of ES&H issued a report investigating the hazards nuclear workers were exposed to, specifically the dangers that workers at uranium enrichment plants in Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio faced. Under the Bush administration, the office has issued rules that may make DOE contractors liable for fines for safety violations.
Worker advocates are concerned that the plan will de-prioritize worker safety and health issues. The head of the United Steelworkers Union told Secretary Bodman that ES&H "has proven to be a strong champion of worker safety, and we do not want to lose that protection and see our safety protection swallowed up by another office with multiple responsibilities and lesser authority." The United Steelworkers Union represents workers at DOE facilities involved in both nuclear weapons production and environmental clean-up.
Richard D. Miller, Senior Policy Analyst for the Government Accountability Project, said "the Department of Energy's plan to eliminate its office of ES&H, eliminate an assistant secretary and merge its environment, safety and health functions into an organization dealing with security, [such as] guards, guns, gates and cyber security[,] will weaken worker and public protections. DOE self-regulates nuclear and worker safety, and if it is not prepared to maintain a strong system of self-regulation, then it is time to consider whether external regulation from the NRC and OSHA is in order."
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