Inside Energy

Monday, January 25, 1999

Environment, Safety & Health


Shawn Terry

DOE headquarters last week stripped its field offices of the responsibility for all new leases on properties at the department's former defense facilities before they are turned over to private companies, David Michaels, assistant secretary for environment, safety and health, said last week.

"Until now, the field offices have had the primary responsibility for conducting reviews. New leases will be carefully reviewed by headquarters," Michaels said in an interview.

Potential safety hazards and several unresolved policy issues that continue to plague DOE's attempts to "reindustralize" property, by turning it over to non-government entities, prompted headquarters last week to institute the interim policy.

"What we are trying to do is establish a regulatory framework. And that's a big effort my office is involved in. And so the interim policy calls for headquarters to review all new leases coming up. I don't know when the permanent policy will be issued," Michaels said.

Meanwhile, Michaels said DOE headquarters, the department's Office of Worker and Community Transition and the Environmental Protection Agency will continue to hammer out a permanent policy. "There are some complicated issues that remain to be addressed," he said.

EPA and DOE agree that potentially dangerous facilities should not be released to the public, Michaels said.

Robert DeGrasse, director of the Office of Worker and Community Transition, acknowledged recently that DOE has partially leased "several buildings" at the Oak Ridge Reservation that contain "some remaining contamination in their basements." But DeGrasse said the contamination is "being remediated," adding DOE has "judged that under the worst case scenario, the workers would not be exposed beyond the federal standard."

Asked who is in charge of overseeing safety at sites being leased, Michaels responded, "That is something we are trying to clarify right now."

Richard Miller, an analyst for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union, which represents personnel at DOE facilities, maintained that DeGrasse's office has promoted leasing clean areas within contaminated buildings at the East Tennessee Technology Park in Oak Ridge. "There is no question that DOE is taking a rush-to-rent approach to reindustrialization," Miller said.

EPA also is concerned with DOE's reindustrialization efforts. In November, Timothy Fields, acting assistant administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, wrote DeGrasse that "EPA believes the current approach of some DOE Field Offices to execute leases without regard to the Hall Amendment undermines the joint EPA and DOE interim policy and may raise questions about the risks of the leased facilities to workers and the public."

The Hall Amendment, part of the FY-94 National Defense Authorization Act, allows DOE to lease property at department facilities that are being closed or redesigned.

Results of a recent Occupational Safety and Health Administration pilot project at the Oak Ridge Reservation also confirmed that there are "occupied facilities with residual radiation contamination," Fields said.

According to a report released by ES&H's Office of Oversight in September 1997, two private companies were leasing and using space in buildings at ETTP "that have not been fully decontaminated and have not had ... chemical and biological hazards characterized and mitigated to facilitate private worker access."

Another DOE official said last week "we know for a fact that they have not resolved all those issues." Rooftop leaks in some of the buildings at Oak Ridge could lead to radioactive contamination and asbestos washing down onto ceilings and walls, he said. For now, unclarified issues create confusion within DOE, the official maintained.

According to a Bechtel Jacobs Co. spokesman, there are currently 87 workers in a partially contaminated building at ETTP. "Twenty-three are either Bechtel Jacobs or Lockheed Martin Energy System employees. Sixty-four are working for tenants who have leased space in that building," according to the spokesman. Bechtel is the management and integration contractor for the Oak Ridge Operations Office.

When managers were asked about DOE's responsibility and liability for the private company workers, they provided varying answers, from "DOE is fully responsible and liable" to "DOE has absolutely no responsibility if they are not performing non-DOE work," the Bechtel spokesman said.

While DOE officials said they were not against reindustrialization, many believe the sites need to be cleaned up before they are released to private companies.

To implement this leasing approach at the Tennessee facility, DOE has transferred several spaces to private companies through the establishment of the Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee in Oak Ridge. CROET acts as a leasing agent to attract private companies interested in leasing buildings, space and equipment at the DOE site.

"We've been working very hard to establish clear policy and guidance to these issues. We are concerned that the people who are on our sites are safe," DeGrasse said. -- Shawn Terry