WASHINGTON—Months before new health and safety rules are to take effect for more than 100,000 workers at Department of Energy sites across the nation, the DOE is dismantling the office that's in charge of implementing them.
The move has drawn sharp criticism on Capitol Hill and from others, who say it will gut the department's worker-safety and health programs. Lawmakers and other critics say the restructuring will roll back more than 20 years of better worker safeguards while appeasing contractors who've long complained about overly restrictive regulations.
"This is the pendulum swinging back," said David Michaels, who headed the office as an assistant secretary of energy in the Clinton administration.
Department officials defended the restructuring, saying the Office of Environment, Safety and Health needed to be overhauled. Combining it with the DOE's security office will increase, not lessen, workers' safety, they said.
They bristled at any suggestion that the department is downgrading its commitment to safety. "That is absolutely and totally incorrect," said Clay Sell, the department's deputy secretary.
Critics said their concerns extended beyond the uncertainty over the new rules.
Since the Bush administration took office, they said, security issues and modernizing the nation's nuclear arsenal have taken priority over efforts to clean up the toxic legacy of Cold War weapons production and ensure that workers are protected.
"We have great concerns about where this is heading," said Tom Carpenter of the Government Accountability Project in Seattle, which tracks developments at the Energy Department.
The department has 14,000 direct employees and 100,000 more who work for contractors.
Those workers face any number of dangers, from exposure to nuclear materials or highly toxic waste to the problems possible at any major construction or industrial site. Recently, there were concerns that workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state were being exposed to possibly dangerous vapors venting from underground storage tanks that hold nuclear waste, and two workers were seriously injured in a construction crane accident at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
Since the days of its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, the department has been self-regulating on issues of worker health and safety rules and the environment.
But in the mid-1980s, amid mounting reports of serious worker health and safety problems, widespread environmental contamination and abuses by contractors, Congress stepped in to tighten oversight.
It created the Office of Environment, Safety and Health to develop and oversee DOE regulations on worker safety and health and environmental issues. It also created an independent watchdog agency, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.
The department announced Wednesday that it would proceed with merging its Office of Environment, Safety and Health with its security office.
"Combining health, safety, security enforcement and independent oversight responsibilities into the Office of Health, Safety and Security creates one unified office that will result in improved coordination among important functions, including an integrated approach to managing risks involving safety and security considerations," the DOE said in explaining the move.
The Environment, Safety and Health Office had been headed by an assistant secretary appointed by the White House and confirmed by the Senate. The merged office will be headed by a career professional.
The former office's environmental functions, including writing environmental-impact statements required under the National Environmental Policy Act, will be transferred to the department's general counsel's office.
In defending the restructuring, Sell said the Office of Environment, Safety and Health was disorganized and inattentive to the needs of the department's field offices and lacked oversight authority.
The new office's responsibilities will be equally divided between safety and health issues and security, he said.
"The criticism we are downgrading worker safety and we are returning to the 1980s or giving contractors additional influence is completely and absolutely false," Sell said.
An assistant secretary is supposed to oversee the new safety rules, which are scheduled to take effect in early February. Sell said there would be no "adverse effects" from the reorganization.
"We expect there will be a more effective implementation," he said.
The department also has quietly moved to redefine its relationship with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which has no enforcement powers but has issued a stream of sometimes highly critical reports on the DOE's projects and policies over the years.
In a May memo, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman reminded employees that it was the DOE, not the safety board, that was responsible for department operations.
"When we appear to allow any outside group to make our decisions, we are not meeting that obligation and are abdicating our responsibility," Bodman wrote.
As word of the department's proposal to merge its health and safety office with its security office spread on Capitol Hill late last spring, criticism quickly mounted. Much of the opposition has come from Democrats, though some Republicans also have expressed concerns.
In a letter to Bodman, Sens. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., charged that the change could damage the health of DOE workers and people who lived near the department's sites; they also said it probably would complicate the implementation of the new safety rules.
Paul Ziemer, who headed the Office of Environment, Safety and Health in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, joined in a letter with Michaels, who headed it under Clinton, asking Bodman to reconsider the reorganization. They warned that the move would be perceived as weakening the DOE's health and safety programs.
"The department can ill afford to fuel such a perception," they wrote.
Criticism also came from the state level.
"The DOE plan downgrades and weakens safety and health protections and is the wrong action to take and the wrong time," Democratic Govs. Christine Gregoire of Washington state and Bill Richardson of New Mexico said in a letter to Bodman. Richardson served as energy secretary in the Clinton administration.
Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate.
On Thursday, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., asked the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to hold hearings.
"I'm deeply disappointed the Bush administration continues to try to move ahead with this," Cantwell said.
It's unclear whether the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., will call a hearing. Sell, who helped write the reorganization plan, is a former Domenici staffer.
Bodman has the authority to make the changes without Congress' approval.
Carpenter, of the Government Accountability Project, said the timing of the reorganization, just months before the new safety rules take effect, was suspicious.
"Isn't that amazing?" he said. "It looks like they are doing an end run."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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