River of money at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation
First of five parts
Billions of U.S. tax dollars wind like the Columbia River through the Tri-Cities before soaking into the desert sand.
This flood of federal cash is supposed to clean up Hanford’s nuclear graveyard. Or so Congress thinks when it signs the checks: $5 million a day, $2 billion a year.
But five years into grappling with the Western World’s most polluted place, the public money cleans little up. Much of it is wasted.
Millions are blown on misguided projects, corporate lawyers and redundant reports. Taxpayers also buy worker perks such as jewelry, Godfather’s pizzas and 500 copies of the self-help book “Please Understand Me.”
The Hanford cleanup staggers and stops, but the money flows and flows, keeping 18,750 workers afloat in salaries averaging $43,000 a year. Many Hanford managers cost the public more than its judges or prosecutors.
And just as irrigating the Columbia Basin paints the desert green, this river of public money waters the south-central Washington economy, now booming with record home and luxury car sales.
The money flows 125 miles northeast too, nourishing Spokane. Hanford poured about $16 million into the city last year, buying everything from SMK Mechanical’s services to community relations tips from Bill First, a former aide to House Speaker Tom Foley.
The Hanford money is supposed to keep gushing for another 30 years for a total cleanup pricetag as high as $100 billion. That’s $400 for every American.
The nature and the urgency of the work makes it expensive. New technology is needed to handle some of the nastiest stuff ever created. No one has ever tried to clean up something this big and this toxic.
But so far, it’s been a dubious investment for the taxpayer. No longer hidden behind Cold War secrecy, Hanford’s sloppy and obsolete business practices are creeping into the sunlight.
Nobody knows how much Hanford squanders, but most any investigation trips alarms.
Even the cleanup chief at the U.S. Department of Energy suspects one of every three dollars sent to Hanford is wasted.
If so, Hanford flushes about $650 million a year now, enough public money to run Washington State University for two years, or half the annual budget for the state of Idaho.
Without dramatic cleanup progress, an antsy Congress may opt to slow or dam Hanford’s money river, leaving the Northwest with an untamed environmental monster and some serious economic blues, too.
The Clinton White House is sending 158 people to help watch the money. The U.S. Senate is plotting its own investigation.
While pressure mounts, Hanford managers ask for patience. They agree that more work needs to get done for less, but blame their travails on unforeseen obstacles.
Westinghouse Hanford Co. has done a good job with the tax dollars, insists Ronald Lerch, the president’s assistant at the firm that runs most of Hanford for the government.
Lerch and other top Hanford officials say the five years of arduous preparation was needed to understand the cleanup challenges. That work is about to pay off, they say.
“We were new and we were guessing as to what was needed,” Lerch says. “We now know it better and are doing things smarter.”
Still, the $7.5 billion poured into Hanford since 1989 hasn’t changed much of the wreckage left by four decades of breakneck bomb making.
Not a single major radioactive mess has been cleaned. Deadly chemicals still bleed into the Columbia. Waste tanks still leak. There still isn’t even a permanent dump for waste dug or pumped from the earth.
Many earnest Hanford workers are privately exasperated. “We’ve spent billions and billions and we haven’t gotten anything,” says Clark Hodge, a 21-year Hanford engineer. “Everyone should be embarrassed. Everyone I know is.”
WORKING IN THE PAST
Hanford’s spendthrift habits are rooted in its original secretive mission. For so long, Hanford made possibly the most expensive product on earth - plutonium. Money was no object in the race for nuclear weapons.
Expenses went unquestioned. Few people reviewed the books.
After so much business in the dark, Hanford wasn’t ready to embrace its new, unclassified cleanup mission. The humbling switch from protecting the free world to becoming glorified garbage men, as some griped, was abrupt and unwelcomed by most.
The shift should have triggered changes in the way Hanford handles money. It didn’t.
A 1990 government investigation described an entrenched “Hanford Culture” where there is “no real incentive to keep costs down … but rather a casual acceptance of business as usual.”
This culture continues. Big companies still collect multi-million dollar profits on generous contracts that shield them against financial risks.
Millions arrive almost daily by electronic wire to the U.S. Bank at 701 Jadwin Ave. in Richland. Most of this public cash is never touched by public officials before it’s spent by private companies working at Hanford. Federal oversight of the money is limited too.
A study last fall found projects at DOE weapons stations cost taxpayers twice as much to manage as other government projects, and about three times the private-sector average.
Much of that money goes to overhead. For example, an internal Hanford report says taxpayers will lose $19 million over five years if Westinghouse runs the site’s future mega-dump. An outside company could do it with far fewer people, the report says.
Even the company hired this summer to trim costs and speed the cleanup has troubles.
A DOE audit team surprised Bechtel Hanford Co. last month by examining the company’s proposed $269 million budget for next year. Auditors found about $40 million in potential fat, including the doublecounting of many employees.
Contractors complain the new cleanup mission created a workplace with more layers of regulations and bureaucracy. Along with the environment police came severe worker-safety and construction requirements.
Overseeing this expensive paper shuffle is a Congress that usually ignores Hanford’s books. Washington state’s loyal delegation helps keep it that way. They brawl for Hanford money to keep the jobs rolling, but rarely watch to see where the cash goes.
The result is a strange inflationary place where almost everything costs more. Even drilling wells and installing toilets can cost twice as much as they should.
Dirk Dunning had his own eye-popper with Hanford’s books in the summer of 1993.
Watching Hanford for the state of Oregon, he entered DOE budget data into a computer spreadsheet and discovered the agency had double-budgeted two major projects.
The flub could have cost taxpayers almost $100 million.
Dunning mentioned the gaffe at a meeting with DOE and Westinghouse brass. They looked stunned, then went back and checked.
Their response to Dunning: “Thank you very much.”
TOO MUCH TOO SOON
With the first wave of cleanup cash in 1990, Hanford managers bought thousands of workers, endless studies and costly plan-as-you-go projects.
More than $450 million explored ways to dispose of radioactive trash by converting it into cement blocks or glass logs. The projects were abandoned or delayed.
As much as three-fourths of that money was wasted, admits John Wagoner, DOE’s site manager.
Another $20 million went into trying to transform an aging plutonium plant into a waste processor. Millions were blown on the project even after state regulators spiked the idea, a congressional study found.
Unlike the private sector, killed or stalled cleanup projects rarely mean layoffs. Many people say do-nothing or do-little jobs are common.
“We have gigantic fiefdoms of people who don’t know what they are doing. Nobody can be let go. They just move people around,” says Casey Ruud, a top DOE environmental manager and former Westinghouse employee.
Even DOE and Westinghouse spokesmen privately concede that Hanford is overstaffed - with far more workers than needed during peak plutonium production in the mid-1980s.
Assistant Energy Secretary Thomas Grumbly says people are tripping over each other so much that work would go faster with about 10 percent fewer people.
In other words, Hanford would be better off after passing out almost 2,000 pink slips. DOE officials say they are now trying to thin Hanford’s troops, encouraging 1,000 retirements over the next year.
One project manager says that won’t dent the problem. He complains about a group of tank farm workers who played bridge from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. most days. “Common sense isn’t used at Hanford because it would cost jobs.”
On an October morning last year Hanford whistleblower Inez Austin stood on the steps of the Richland federal building and announced: “I make $52,000 and I have nothing to do.”
WORKER PERKS, GENEROUS CONTRACTS
Hanford contracts weren’t designed with the taxpayer in mind. Most all business costs are allowed.< Battelle Northwest Laboratories doesn't have to skimp on costs for a new research lab that it's building.
Interior plans call for $150,000 worth of “Vertical Grain Douglas Fir.” The old-growth lumber gives doors and paneling a regal air. It also costs taxpayers $40,000 more than maple or oak.
A Battelle official explains the lab will be a “world-class facility.”
This small extravagance isn’t unusual.
If a Hanford contractor needs a lawyer, for example, taxpayers provide one - no matter what the cost.
Contractors can pick the nation’s priciest law firms, which sometimes bill taxpayers as much as $300 an hour, then nick them again for gourmet meals and first-class flights.
If a Hanford company wants to reward workers, taxpayers pay for that, too.
In February, Westinghouse gave a Hanford contract to a North Carolina firm for $13,271 worth of jewelry. CA Short provides Westinghouse with rings, watches and clocks inscribed with company logos for service anniversaries and other occasions.
Last year, Westinghouse also spent $7,843 for employee T-shirts, $2,900 for 7-Eleven sodas and about $60,000 at Tri-Cities trophy stores to boost worker morale.
Taxpayers even spent $533,000 for URM Cash & Carry Hungry-Man dinners last year so Hanford workers could get a free meal during long shifts.
All of these expenses were approved, but federal investigators caught Westinghouse last year approving a perk that even DOE contracts don’t allow.
The company “improperly modified” a paving job to include construction of a fancy basketball court on Hanford grounds. Two replica National Basketball Association backboards, costing about $8,000, were ordered.
The DOE investigators killed the deal, demanding the expensive backboards be returned. They also found “at least two other” similar courts.
Westinghouse’s Lerch says the company only spends about $280,000 a year rewarding workers, a tiny fraction of its budget. He calls it a good investment. “I think you’d be pound foolish cutting them.”
Until recently, Westinghouse security guards at Hanford were paid overtime to exercise. Taxpayers spent $471,000 for their fitness program in 1992, including the cost of an on-site instructor. Now they exercise during regular shifts.
The Energy Department tries to be firm with contractors and resist pleas to pay for more employee “morale and recognition programs,” says Hanford DOE Procurement Director Peter Rasmussen.
“They always want to get money for company picnics,” he says. “We’ve never paid for their baseball teams, although every year they try to sell us on that” too.
A Tri-Cities accountant with 15 years of guiding big and small companies through Hanford jobs says the DOE is often a stickler on trivial details, but oblivious to bigger expenses.
“It gets to the point where you just start throwing stuff at them. Pay for this! Pay for that! They nitpick you on the little stuff, but it’s amazing what you can get them to pay for.”
This tale of an out-of-control boondoggle is not the story told by Hanford’s public relations soldiers.
They talk about a talented, diverse workforce conquering immense technological obstacles and environmental problems.
And they say reforms are coming.
A January pact commits the DOE and Westinghouse to saving taxpayers $1 billion by 1999 by thinning regulations, shedding security and trimming project costs. The agency says it has saved $33 million so far.
The DOE’s Wagoner says the next year is pivotal for Hanford to prove it’s not a bad investment. The site manager also admits slow progress.
“Walking 18,000 employees and a whole community through the changes here is a hard process. But it’s the only choice. If we can’t do it, we won’t get the level of support from the guys who write the checks.”
Much of the Hanford money is now spent averting catastrophe.
More than $600 million is swallowed yearly caring for 177 underground waste tanks, but monitoring equipment is inadequate and work lags behind schedule.
Hanford spends another $300 million a year maintaining and guarding contaminated buildings that await the wrecking ball. There are still 43 managers and 600 employees assigned to a plutonium plant that was shut down five years ago.
Hanford managers commonly gripe that environmental regulators slow the work, but decline to provide examples. Regulators say Hanford’s corporate practices are to blame.
Simple environmental studies often take almost three years. Five separate safety reviews are often needed before work starts.
In one case, Hanford workers and regulators studied what to do with a small concrete pad for three years. The pad supported a solvents Dumpster. Workers have a term for the overkill: “Hanfordized.”
Major cleanup proposals also must pass through Hanford’s various factions and “stakeholder” interest groups.
Adrian Roberts, a Battelle vice president, says his firm hasn’t unleashed more cleanup technologies at Hanford because it’s so hard to get agreement on anything.
“If putting a man on the moon had been opened up to a stakeholder process that included EPA, the state Department of Ecology, the downwinders, the upwinders, the press, the Native Americans … Would we have ever got a man on the moon in that time frame?” he asks.
“This is what makes my blood boil. … The net result is a stalemate.”
The Hanford cleanup has left some footprints. There are demolished buildings, new water treatment plants, office buildings and a soil cleaner. Some chemical spills and dumps have been cleaned. New technology has helped scientists analyze and tame the radioactive soup inside tanks.
But the billions of dollars haven’t changed much.
Inside Hanford’s security gates, the site opens into a wind-beaten, riverside slab of desert about half the size of Rhode Island. Some of the world’s first nuclear reactors skirt the Columbia River: gray, blocky, primitive warehouse-style buildings without the modern domes to protect the environment.
Fields of contaminated earth fan out from the nine dead reactors like poorly marked cemeteries. Occasional “WARNING!” signs tell people not to walk there.
Up the hill, away from the river, roads cut through miles of tumbleweeds to gray buildings bigger than city blocks where plutonium was refined.
Sources and tours indicate there usually aren’t that many people working on the site, doing actual cleanup. Most Hanford workers are tucked inside cramped offices.
The solution: Build more office space.
There are now behind-the-scenes plans to build at least a half-million square feet, 10 football fields worth, of new office space for Hanford workers.
THE `T’ WORD
Alarm bells now ring in Washington, D.C.
DOE cleanups were the topic at a summer meeting of top officials. The White House budget chief, EPA officials and congressional aides discussed total cost estimates for cleaning the nation’s mothballed weapons stations.
Two years ago it was $160 billion. Earlier this year it was $300 billion. The rumor at this meeting is that the DOE slipped the White House a note saying total costs might be twice that, or more.
A congressional aide jumped into the discussion and said Congress may panic if it hears the cleanups could cost as much as a trillion dollars.
“If the `T’ word is mentioned,” she said, “you’re going to see Congress run away from” this problem.
If the money river runs dry, the Northwest not only gets stranded with the nation’s most volatile environmental threat, but it also gets stripped of its cash cow.
The Hanford money helps draw businesses to Spokane, Coeur d’Alene and the region. Many others rely on it for a growing pot of revenues.
For the Tri-Cities, turning off the spigot derails dreams of a stable economy, of becoming the region’s high-tech hub.
Without the money, many of the affluent scientists, engineers and managers exit their big homes. The Mercedes and Cadillacs stop selling at record pace at the Pasco autoplex.
Without the river, much of the Tri-Cities economy goes belly-up in the desert sun.