DOE Oversight Bureau Faces Budget Cuts

* Earlier this year, President Bush proposed a budget for the Department of Energy (or DOE) that cuts in half the budget for the New Mexico Environment Department's DOE Oversight Bureau. The Bureau monitors the activities, pollution and cleanup at New Mexico's DOE facilities, including Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL), Sandia National Laboratory and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. The Bureau's budget has been cut from $1.08 million in Fiscal Year 2001 to $725,000 in Fiscal Year 2002. The cuts are expected to take effect this October. According to the budget drafted by President Bush, "[the] decrease in funding reflects support transferred to higher priorities." These higher priorities include an added $700 million to President Bush's proposal for nuclear weapons work

The Oversight Bureau performs such tasks as environmental monitoring and surveillance, oversight of environmental restoration projects, and waste management at New Mexico's DOE sites. The Oversight Bureau has had several successes, including the discovery of tritium and strontium-90 in the water in a well serving the Los Alamos area. This discovery prompted further investigation by LANL. Due to the cuts, some important Oversight Bureau activities have already been cancelled, including the yearly sampling of the Rio Grande. The Oversight Bureau may also be forced to lay off some of its 20-person staff. Similar bureaus operate in other states with DOE interests, including Missouri, Idaho and Nevada. Those sites face 50 percent budget cuts this fall as well.

Activists and DOE are both greatly concerned about the cuts to the Oversight Bureau. At DOE's recent Environmental Management stakeholders meeting in Albuquerque, restoration of the Oversight Bureau's budget was considered a top priority by all involved, including DOE, several representatives from New Mexico's pueblos, the Environmental Protection Agency and many activist groups. As Joni Arends, of CCNS, said, "The bureau is the eyes and ears of what's going on. [We] have seen the work that Los Alamos lab has done and wešre grateful that the (Oversight) Bureau is watching."

Of particular concern are the effects that the budget cuts will have on the Oversight Bureau's monitoring of the contaminant movement in the aftermath of the Cerro Grande fire. The second summer after the fire will come to a close as the budget cuts take affect. The second year after a fire is a time when monitoring is especially important because it is the worst for runoff, flooding and erosion.

Both activists and DOE officials agree that the Oversight Bureau has become increasingly important as the activities at New Mexico's DOE sites are expanded. John Parker, head of the DOE Oversight Bureau, said, "we're really managing the impacts of [DOE's] mission."

Senator Jeff Bingaman and Representative Tom Udall, and their staffs, have been particularly supportive of restoring funding for the Oversight Bureau, as well as Senator Pete Domenici. According to Senator Domenici's staff, the Senator could include language specifying the allocation for the Oversight Bureau. In the alternative, the DOE's Albuquerque Operations Office could restore the funding by shuffling funds from other DOE projects. Congress will meet to discuss the DOE's budget after the Labor Day holiday.

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