Idaho State Journal

ISU research funding questioned with new company at INEEL

By Anne Minard
Journal Staff Writer

Thursday, March 23, 2000

POCATELLO - An announcement by the Department of Energy that a new company will take over monitoring for radionuclides at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory could have repercussions for Idaho State University.

The switch came after a DOE contract with the Environmental Science and Research Foundation, a non-profit organization, expired last year. That company, which has conducted environmental monitoring at the site since 1994, will be replaced by the for-profit Stoller Corp. DOE officials said the new contract - worth $8 million over the next five years - was awarded based on an open, competitive process.

"If I were a member of the public, I would be a little disturbed. Bias is always an issue" with a for-profit company, said Roy Evans, who has headed the environmental monitoring portion of ESRF's former contract. He said research projects at Idaho State University that have been funded through the old contract could be in jeopardy.

"We support a number of graduate students at ISU. All of those people are in mid-academic year," he said, adding that Stoller Corp. "is not obligated to fund ongoing research" at the site. The foundation had proposed spending $740,000 on university research in the upcoming year, a figure which represents about 40 percent of its proposed budget. Of that money, $255,000 was proposed to go to the University of Idaho and $150,000 was planned for ISU.

Twenty-eight researchers, including graduate students, are funded in whole or in part by the foundation, Evans said.

Evans said the University of Idaho was "part of the plot" as a subcontractor of Stoller, but would not elaborate.

Ed House, dean of the Office of Re-search at ISU, said the foundation has frozen at least three major research projects at the university as a result of the contract decision.

"It has a negative effect on us at least in the short term," House said Wednesday.

He added that ISU has been doing almost all of the on-site monitoring as a subcontractor.

"We have the expertise, we have the equipment and we've been doing this for several years," he said. House said the university expects to continue the work with Stoller. "We're well suited to do that."

Betsy Jonker, DOE's project manager for environmental monitoring and surveillance at the site, said she suspects Stoller will continue to fund ongoing projects through the universities, but may not pick up the tab for projects planned but not yet begun.

"I expect that ISU will be a player in this contract," she said.

While the contract decision was a "quiet" process that did not involve much dialogue with the university, she said, "I would hope that, now that we're moving forward with things, we will communicate with ISU."

While Jonker said "cost was not a criteria that we rated or ranked," Evans said the outgoing foundation's technical score was better than the score for Stoller.

"It was based on price alone," Evans said.

"One way or another, this company has undercut our costs by about 20 percent," Evans said. "We doubt very seriously that they can accomplish the job and maintain the level of quality that I suspect the public would want."

The foundation, in its monitoring of radionuclides at the site, has found little evidence that operations at INEEL have contaminated the surrounding ground, air, farm produce or wildlife.

"The one area where we do see site-related activity is in wild game," Evans said. Other than that, he said, the other trace quantities observed are from worldwide background radiation, the likes of which is caused by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

The foundation was formed largely in order to do monitoring and research at the INEEL, Evans said, and as of last week, when he was notified of the end of the contract, its future is uncertain.

"I've got my resume out," Evans said Wednesday.

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Anne Minard covers science and the environment for the Journal. She can be reached at 239-3168 or by e-mail at aminard@journalnet.com.