Hanford: is anybody watching?
(Second of five parts)
Money has always come easily for Hanford.
When Gen. Leslie Groves built the first atomic bomb there in 1944, his first check from the U.S. Treasury was $12 million - “for supplies.”
Hanford still gets special treatment. The government now delivers billions with few strings attached.
And nobody watches where it all goes.
People trying to track the money slam into a secretive bureaucracy and business culture that has shielded Hanford from scrutiny for 50 years.
Most of the power and money is in the hands of private companies that operate with no financial risk and little oversight.
The U.S. Department of Energy is supposed to police the companies, but lacks the manpower and the expertise.
When workers expose waste and fraud they are often crushed by a system that rewards loyalty and silence.
Congress is charged with protecting the taxpayer, but its primary goal at Hanford is to keep the jobs and the money coming.
“We inherited a mindset that said, `Folks, whatever this costs, it’s in the national interest and we do it.’ You do it behind closed doors and you just do it. That mindset carried over into the earlier days of cleanup,” recalls Sid Morrison, Central Washington’s U.S. representative through 1992.
A national clamor over wasteful spending is forcing shifts in the Hanford mindset, and could soon deliver the weapons station to the budget slashers.
Hanford also lost its most powerful guardian with the defeat of House Speaker Tom Foley.
During this last election campaign, voters and candidates heckled congressmen across America for pork-barrel politics.
The climate was so hostile that the embattled Foley scrambled to defend even the federal investment in the popular Centennial Trail.
The government contributed $7.6 million to construction of the Spokane River path.
It spends that every 36 hours at Hanford.
Outgunned and understaffed
Nadine Highland admits she doesn’t have the staff to scrutinize Hanford’s $2 billion annual budget.
The DOE’s chief financial officer in Richland couldn’t single out any improper spending that her office had detected in the past two years.
“I’m not comfortable with the level of our auditing,” she says.
She shouldn’t be.
The money is watched so casually it took two years to notice that Westinghouse Hanford Co. charged taxpayers $3.5 million in 1992 for disposing of radioactive garbage that didn’t exist.
Hanford budgets are in such disarray, one investigator says he often finds five different budget numbers for the same project.
A 1992 inspection found one overworked DOE employee at Hanford had reviewed 325 contractor cost estimates during a two-week span.
Hanford spending habits are such that DOE officials requested $55 million during the past three years for projects they weren’t ready to begin, or had already completed.
Hanford’s spotty oversight is especially alarming to government contracting experts familiar with the arrangements DOE makes with its top companies.
Contractors’ costs are reimbursed. Profits - negotiated in part as a percentage of expenditures - are guaranteed.
“The first thing we were told is that with these cost-reimbursement contracts you need far more oversight because the government accepts all the (financial) risks,” says a contracting veteran.
A Defense Department contract analyst says the Pentagon now avoids the type of contracts the DOE uses at Hanford. He says they encourage inflated budgets because the more companies spend, the higher their potential windfall.
“If it gets out of hand and nobody’s watching it, the thing will just grow and grow and grow. Why would it not?”
The responsibility to watch Hanford’s billions is fractured among a few aggressive politicians, two packs of government gumshoes, and small citizen groups.
The General Accounting Office, the investigatory arm of Congress, is the most feared at Hanford. But it is a small force.
The three full-time investigators try to oversee Hanford’s enormous operations and its 18,750 employees from a small, usually locked, office inside the federal building in Richland.
Their orders have come from two powerful Democratic lawmakers, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio. It is unclear how aggressive the new Republican Congress will be toward Hanford.
The DOE relies on its inspector general’s office to catch waste and abuse.
While the five inspector general auditors at Hanford expose some excesses, they rarely perform major investigations into Westinghouse or other big contractors.
Instead, they are more often accused of conspiring with the companies and turning on people who report possible abuses.
Sonja Anderson told a Senate committee in 1992 that, instead of pursuing Hanford problems she uncovered, the inspector’s office endangered her career by sharing confidential concerns with her employer, Westinghouse.
Now a principal scientist with ICF Kaiser Hanford, Anderson told the committee, “The actual function of the Office of Inspector General, as I perceive, is to aid and abet Westinghouse in their violations of state and federal laws.”
A former inspector general investigator bolsters Anderson’s claim in an affidavit obtained by The Spokesman-Review. She said the inspector general’s top Hanford auditor told her to find no evidence that Westinghouse was overbilling the government.
“I was told, `You will come up with no findings,”’ she says in an interview, sharing her affidavit under the condition her name not be published.
Inspector General John Layton will not comment on the allegation, says spokesman Rob Jacques.
Jacques says Layton and his 202 auditors nationwide do the best they can, but notes that the office will need more than twice as many auditors by the year 2001 to handle its growing workload.
“We feel that with our resources we have made a good-faith effort at keeping the department informed at every opportunity we find to improve the programs at Hanford,” he says.
Layton, who is sometimes mocked by congressional aides as “Inspector Clouseau,” now relies in part on contractors’ audits of themselves, Jacques says.
Westinghouse officials say the audits are part of their commitment to save money.
But a Westinghouse project manager charged with looking for savings says the cost-cutting campaign is mostly rhetoric.
“They are just lots of words flying around.”
She predicts little will change until the DOE changes the way it reimburses companies for all expenses.
“You are rewarded for being wasteful,” she says. “This has no resemblance to a (normal) business. No business can be run this way.”
Politics pushes spending
The state’s political hall of fame hangs behind Sam Volpentest’s desk in Kennewick. There are photographs of the late senators Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Warren Magnuson with hand-written notes to their “long-time friend.”
Volpentest is the 90-year-old activist at the helm of a powerful coalition of business boosters, corporate lobbyists, labor unions and politicians which easily overwhelms Hanford’s few critics.
Critics are few because taxpayers don’t know how the public money is being spent, and even environmentalists and anti-nuke groups - traditional Hanford foes - want the cleanup cash to keep coming.
“We have enough friends and allies to keep the money flowing,” says Volpentest, of the Tri-Cities Industrial Development Council.
Volpentest’s influence was planted in a decades-long friendship with Magnuson, who became the Senate’s money man, chairman of federal appropriations.
The two teamed up in 1963 to construct a federal building in Richland, then joined President John F. Kennedy that same year to celebrate the opening of Hanford’s N Reactor.
Three decades later, Volpentest fights for Hanford with a new generation of allies trying to persuade people the investment of public money is worth it.
The effort is bolstered by Hanford’s public relations machine. Westinghouse itself has 37 employees in its communications department.
The Northwest congressional delegation helps too. It signs letters every year, asking colleagues to support full Hanford funding.
Even West Side congressmen lobby for Hanford dollars. It’s not without rewards.
Last June, Bremerton Congressman Norm Dicks was treated to a $250-a-couple fund-raiser in the Tri-Cities. Dicks sits on the key House committee that determines federal spending priorities.
The statehouse in Olympia also has Hanford advocates.
Last year, a bill to protect corporate whistleblowers from retaliation for exposing fraud and waste almost sailed through the Legislature. A Hanford ally stopped it.
Then-House majority whip Jim Jesernig, who represented the Tri-Cities at the time, made sure it didn’t pass.
The Hanford coalition may not be as successful in the future. Even Volpentest thinks the big money can’t last.
After his trip to Washington, D.C., last summer - which included a birthday meal treat from Dicks - he fears funding could plummet in a few years, or sooner.
The cash could easily go to other states with stronger political delegations.
“I don’t see Congress funding Hanford at the same level as we’ve been getting. Two billion a year ain’t going to continue. The golden goose out there isn’t going to continue to lay eggs.”
Fears of a boondoggle
After so many years of backing Hanford, Washington state politicians are starting to feel uncomfortable about their booster role.
Lawmakers of both parties have been driven to defend jobs and bring home federal money. They also compete with other delegations, like South Carolina’s, which seeks cleanup money for the Savannah River weapons plant.
“The measure of the delegation’s success was whether the money keeps going up,” says a House energy committee aide. “People are going to put the brakes on programs that waste money. There just isn’t enough money in the system.”
As a Hanford lobbyist puts it, nobody wants to be the Hanford “champion” anymore for fear it will be branded a boondoggle.
For the past two years, he says, one state lawmaker told him repeatedly, “I don’t want to be caught backing a white elephant.”
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., visited the Tri-Cities late last month. Volpentest and Westinghouse Hanford President LaMar Trego cornered her to stress how important it is to keep the money rolling.
The young senator sits on the appropriations committee with a view of the upcoming budget crunch. She isn’t so sure the Hanford money will be there next year.
“It’ll be a struggle,” she says, noting only Washington clearly benefits from the cash. “Everyone’s looking for cuts, and it’s $2 billion all going to one state.”
She said at the time, just weeks before the Nov. 8 election, that Hanford’s funding future hinged in part on whether House Speaker Foley got re-elected.
He supported Hanford projects for decades, but raised concerns early on in the cleanup that the DOE might be the wrong agency for the job.
He suggested letting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers run it. The corps ended up getting a small piece of the action, and Foley has been quiet since.
No Washington lawmaker and none of the recent candidates are calling for investigations, reforms or increased oversight. But the delegation is now praising the Clinton administration’s efforts to get better control of Hanford’s money machine.
Former U.S. Sen. Brock Adams is the only Washington lawmaker to ever openly question the way Hanford works.
Adams slammed “the bomb factories” in his successful 1986 campaign, saying plutonium production should stop and cleanup begin.
He paid a price.
The Tri-Cities responded with a recall campaign. Signs on Tri-Cities billboards shouted: Brock Adams, the “best senator Idaho and South Carolina ever had.”
Hanford may soon attract heat from watchdog groups that scrutinize public spending.
The National Taxpayer’s Union only recently became aware of how much money goes to Hanford.
The president of the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit group predicts the cleanup funds will get axed if the project doesn’t soon show significant progress.
“People will absolutely turn on it,” says David Keating. “You can’t spend that much money in one place without showing solid results. That’s a lot of money.”