A Bush administration proposal to dismantle an Energy Department agency that oversees nuclear and worker safety has run into opposition from a former energy secretary and others.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was energy secretary under the Clinton administration, sent a letter to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman this week criticizing the proposal to merge the Office of Environment Safety and Health with other DOE agencies.
“The DOE plan downgrades and weakens safety and health protections,” Richardson wrote. Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire also signed the letter. Both have large Energy Department nuclear facilities in their states.
“Given the absence of any external studies demonstrating that this office is dysfunctional or ineffective, there appears to be no compelling reason to reduce or change its function,” the letter stated.
The office is in charge of establishing health and safety rules for DOE and contractor employees. It also oversees health studies, medical screening programs and environmental impact statements related to agency activities.
Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell said in a recent interview that the office has had varying levels of success over the years and that the proposal would strengthen the agency and make it more efficient.
Energy Department officials deny the change would weaken health and safety standards. “The department’s top commitment to our more than 110,000 (contractor and DOE) employees is to ensure the safest possible working environment,” DOE spokeswoman Megan Barnett said Wednesday.
She added that nothing had been finalized. “We are currently revising the specifics of this proposal to reflect feedback from members of Congress, our employees, and other interested parties,” Barnett said.
Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., says he is concerned health and safety matters might get lost in the shuffle under the reorganization. He also noted that the Energy Department’s annual spending bill was to be considered by the Senate in the coming weeks and said lawmakers might use that process to block the proposed change.
“This is not a good time to do what they have suggested doing,” Bunning said in an interview with Kentucky reporters. “It’s just plain stupid.”
Senate Democrats, worker advocates and corporate safety experts also have raised concerns.
Under Richardson, the Office of Environment, Safety and Health broke with tradition and acknowledged and investigated the hazards nuclear weapons workers were exposed to. For example, it issued a report spelling out the dangers that workers at uranium enrichment plants in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee faced.
More recently, under the Bush administration, the office issued rules allowing Energy Department contractors to be fined for safety violations.
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