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Ending lab’s use permit a bad idea

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review

The U.S. Department of Energy wants to take some of the Pacific Northwest out of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. If successful, as many as 400 Tri-Cities jobs and $76 million in lab revenues could be affected.

That represents about 10 percent of all work done at PNNL, which along with Washington State University and Spokane-based research has become an essential provider of new technology to Eastern Washington companies. PNNL scientists study environmental sciences, including climate, cellular biology and energy.

There could hardly be a less opportune time to tamper with an institution critical to the region’s global competitiveness, especially in the cause of “leveling the playing field.”

That was the rationale the department relied on Thursday in announcing that the next contract for managing PNNL will not include a use permit that has allowed private companies, universities and other government and non-government organizations access to its state-of-the-art facilities. The permit is unique to PNNL. The 16 other national laboratories can handle non-government work under a more cumbersome “Work for Others Program” that discourages participation.

Use-permit work cannot interfere with government contracts.

In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, nearly 900 projects were conducted under the use permit, which was written into the 1965 contract with the current lab manager, Battelle Memorial Institute. DOE announced in February 2006 the management contract would be competitively bid for the first time. The fate of the use permit has been in doubt ever since.

Their patience spent, senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and representatives Doc Hastings and Norm Dicks finally sent a letter in June asking the department to get on with the bidding, and to continue permitting. Hastings represents the Tri-Cities. Dicks’ district includes Sequim, the site of a PNNL oceanography lab where a significant share of the work is non-DOE.

“They didn’t even want to talk about it,” says Hastings’ chief of staff Todd Young. “We could not get any answers.”

The Congress members and their staffs had some discussions with DOE regarding the permits over the summer, but until Thursday’s announcement, they were not told how the issue would be resolved.

Unhappily, it turns out.

Murray, Hastings and Dicks responded with a statement calling the department’s position on permits “completely unacceptable.” Not only are 300-400 jobs at the lab threatened, they say, so are many more at spinoff businesses in the Tri-Cities and elsewhere in the state.

Cantwell has asked for a hearing on the matter before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

One that may be long overdue. And so is re-examination of Battelle’s management of PNNL, although spokesmen say no audit has ever found any misuse of lab facilities, which are a complex of government- and Battelle-owned buildings, and leased buildings. In January, a Bioproducts, Science and Energy Laboratory developed in conjunction with WSU will open.

Its mission, the conversion of bioproducts into new materials and energy, hits a sweet spot in national priorities right now. Fortunately, WSU-Tri-Cities Chancellor Vicky Carwein says the dispute over permitting will not slow down the project.

Eastern Washington and the nation need all the research possible. Before a new PNNL contract is let next year, DOE should have to explain how a more level playing field will get more and better work out of its thousands of scientists and technicians.

And how putting up more hurdles for private research gets the United States to a better place for science.

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