Politics & Government

White House calls out Hanford cleanup spending. Trump may veto House budget bill

White House officials are threatening a veto of a comprehensive spending bill, in part because of money included for cleaning up the Hanford nuclear reservation.

A policy memo released by the White House Tuesday repeated the concerns of the Department of Energy Inspector General on “mismanagement, weak internal controls and fraud” at Hanford.

The Democrat-controlled U.S. House is expected Wednesday to start considering the bill, which passed out of committee with more money for Hanford and other DOE cleanup programs than requested by the Trump administration.

The White House policy statement said if the spending bill was presented to the president in its current form “his advisers would recommend that he veto it.”

The bill covers spending for multiple agencies in fiscal 2020, including the Department of Energy, Defense, State, Labor, Health and Human Services and Education.

President Donald Trump could be advised to veto a House spending bill, in part, because of its proposal to pay for Hanford cleanup. Alex Brandon AP

The 13-page policy statement includes many criticisms of House spending proposals. The House bill would block spending for the border wall and prohibit spending for withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The policy statement also criticizes many spending increases, including spending to prevent teen pregnancy and to forgive student loans.

Hanford budget proposal adds to increase

The House Democrats’ spending framework “continues to adhere to the misguided and unfounded notion that increases to defense spending must be matched or exceeded by increases to non-defense spending,” the policy statement said.

The spending bill package under consideration would increase spending by $31.5 billion over current spending.

It and other spending bills being considered by the House would put the federal government on track to add nearly $2 trillion to deficits over a decade, adding significantly to the national debt of $22 trillion, the policy statement said.

The Trump administration opposes the $706 million increase in environmental cleanup for DOE sites, including $487 million for Hanford and other DOE defense sites.

It called out Hanford, which produced plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program, for receiving more than half of the increase.

Hanford map.jpg
Courtesy Department of Energy

“The administration urges the Congress to reallocate these funds to higher national security priorities,” the policy statement said.

The House spending proposal would restore $381 million proposed to be cut from the Hanford fiscal 2020 budget by the administration, but would still leave it about $37 million short of current spending.

The policy statement tied its criticism of Hanford to a November 2018 compilation of findings about Hanford made by the DOE Office of Inspector General for the previous seven years.

IG reports Hanford fraud history

The report covered 38 investigations and 24 audits and inspections at Hanford.

“The Hanford Site has been plagued with mismanagement, poor internal controls, and fraudulent activities, resulting in monetary impacts totaling hundreds of millions of dollars by the various contractors involved at the site,” the inspector general report said.

“As many of the weaknesses continue, without more aggressive oversight of contractors and subcontractors, millions of dollars will continue to be at risk for inappropriate charges and potential fraudulent activities,” it said.

The inspector general report covered past scandals, including misuse of federal credit cards, with investigations and sentencing wrapping up by fiscal 2013.

Multiple workers were found to have charged purchases like TVs and home appliances for their own use to the federal government or to have taken kickbacks for making purchases of goods for Hanford from certain vendors.

sludge 3 (2).jpg
The first load of radioactive sludge arrived at Hanford’s T Plant in the center of the nuclear reservation in June 2018. The tractor trailer holding the container is shown before backing into a tunnel at the plant to allow the container to be placed in an underground cell at the plant. Courtesy Department of Energy

The report covered the Hanford timecard fraud scandal, with some workers being paid for overtime hours they did not work.

The current and former Hanford tank farm contractors denied wrongdoing, but paid a combined $23.8 million to settle allegations they submitted false claims for overtime pay to the federal government.

Contract oversight issues covered by the report included allegations that the contractor and subcontractor at the $17 billion vitrification plant charged DOE for materials that failed to meet strict nuclear quality standards.

The companies involved, Bechtel National and URS (before being purchased by Aecom), admitted no wrongdoing but paid $125 million in a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice that also resolved some allegations of improper lobbying by Bechtel.

The report acknowledged that while risks remain, DOE has responded with improvements over the last seven years as individual investigations and audits have been conducted.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.