DOE Contractors to Face Scrutiny in New Mexico and Nationwide

* The Bush Administration announced recently that it intends to fill about half of the federal government's civilian jobs with contractors. However, the Department of Energy (or DOE) is skeptical of the plan, considering the numerous incidents of mismanagement by DOE contractors that are currently under investigation.

Of particular concern is DOE's Environmental Management Program, which has been plagued by mismanagement since its founding. In a most glaring example, in 1985 DOE undertook to clean up 34 million gallons of liquid radioactive waste in storage in South Carolina. The project was to cost $32 million and be completed in three years. Fourteen years and $500 million later, the project was abandoned due to gross mismanagement. Jessie Roberson, assistant DOE secretary for environmental management, said, "I have been embarrassed by our lack of progress. We owe the taxpayers more."

In a 2001 report, the National Research Council called DOE "one of the most inefficient organizations in the federal government," citing that half of the money DOE spends on contracts is wasted, including more than $17 billion in Fiscal Year 2002. In order to correct the problem, Roberson's department is scrutinizing contracts and will train 200 people to be DOE project supervisors to oversee the contractors.

Activists hope that Roberson's efforts will help alleviate the problem, particularly considering the examples of mismanagement that have emerged surrounding Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) and its contractors recently. For example, LANL issued a warning of possible contamination to the U.S. Forest Service and Los Alamos County, who are working to thin the forest in Bayo Canyon. Bayo Canyon was used as a test site for nuclear materials from the 1940s to 1961, and LANL warns that the trees in the canyon may be contaminated. However, CCNS sources have revealed that some trees felled by DOE contractors around LANL are possibly being sold for firewood, despite strict limits on release of contaminated materials for public use.

Further, LANL has received much attention lately regarding the nearly $3 million in lost or stolen property, which was reported by the Albuquerque Journal last week. According to the Journal, University of California (or UC) contractors were using LANL credit cards inappropriately. In one instance, an employee attempted to use a LANL credit card to pay a $20,000 down payment on a sports car. Also, over $140,000 worth of electronic equipment owned by LANL has been stolen or misplaced. An employee of LANL's Business Division claims to have written a letter to LANL in October 2001 suggesting an internal review of some employees' credit card use to ensure no misuse. However, her suggestion was not acted upon.

The Albuquerque Journal learned of the misappropriations via an anonymous whistleblower that alleged LANL's mismanagement. This is particularly critical considering that LANL's whistleblower protection policies have been under criticism by former employees. LANL is currently working to align its whistleblower policy with that of UC, who offers them more comprehensive protection. Although recent events have indicated the importance of whistleblower protection, Chris Mechels, former LANL employee and activist, said, "They don't want anybody to blow the whistle. At [LANL], it's blow the whistle, eat the whistle."

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