ECA peer exchange tackles environmental issues

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Alliance: Concerned about small business contracts

By Arin McKenna

The Energy Communities Alliance (ECA) had a peer exchange in Los Alamos last week. It was the first time ECA has met here in more than five years.

The main topic of discussion was environmental management (EM), although other issues of concern to the participants were also discussed in length.

Seth Kirshenberg, executive director of the ECA, began a series of panel discussions Thursday with a summary of current issues.

Kirshenberg reported that Congress is expected to pass a six-month continuing resolution until a new budget is passed, with provisions that could impact DOE communities.

The main concern was a new limitation that prevents agencies from moving money around. In the past, Department of Energy Environmental Management (DOE-EM) had considerable flexibility in directing money to the most urgent environmental cleanup needs at each site.

“The bottom line is, we don’t have that flexibility to move money between the major control elements if the CR passes as it is today,” Kirshenberg said.

“The concern we would have is that whatever money is available, you would like that money to be allocated on a risk-based algorithm,” a representative from Hanford, Wash., said. “If the budget is constrained by the control levels, and those control levels don’t necessarily reflect what are the risk-based priorities of the day, then I think you’re going to miss your objective of doing the most effective cleanup and the communities are going to miss their objective of how do we remediate those sites at the earliest possible time.

“So you have to get a sense of the individual community’s priorities for risk as that CR gets put together, so you can make sure priority 10 is not fully funded while priority one is maybe half funded.”

One DOE representative said that DOE offices were directed to make an integrated priorities list working with local communities, but none of the communities had been included in those discussions to date.

Local DOE offices also have to be prepared for a smaller budget, to reflect the lowest amount put forth from the administration and the House and Senate committees for the FY13 budget. The budget could be reduced from $5.6 million to $5.3 million. The continuing resolution may also require that 10 percent of that be sequestered for budget deficit purposes.

Kirshenberg also highlighted both accomplishments and delays in the cleanup process, including Los Alamos National Laboratory’s (LANL) milestone of sending its 1,000th transuranic (TRU) waste shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad.

One participant urged DOE to provide an “exhaustive list” of the cleanup status at each site and what the obstacles to completion are. “If communities knew what the issues were and what the challenges were, they could become involved in the decision making process and perhaps they could move the agenda.”

Kirshenberg said that states could also help progress by enforcing milestones and making sure Congress allots enough money to meet those.

DOE’s efforts to allocate more contracts to small businesses met with opposition from participants.

“We plan on awarding seven out of the nine major contracts that are coming up in the next year or so, valued at about $120 million dollars, to small business. We increased our small business funding in FY12 by $300 million dollars,” Kirshenberg said.

A Hanford representative pointed out that the Small Business Administration’s rule that only prime contracts be included in that effort will actually hurt small businesses that are subcontracted to larger contractors. Over 48 percent of

Hanford’s contracts and procurements are going to small businesses through prime contractors.

“It takes about 18 months for DOE to issue a prime small business contract and the kinds of requirements and regulations that small businesses have to go through means that it probably won’t be local small businesses that get those contracts. All of the prime contractors can issue a contract in 30 to 90 days. Under DOE, the prime contract mechanism cannot do it in 18 months.”

“The contractors have the ability to develop and support and mentor small businesses in the local area, and that ends up being subcontracts and purchases in the local area. DOE doesn’t have the staff to do that kind of nurturing,” another participant pointed out. “Not only that, they don’t have the flexibility to do local types of procurement. If SBA takes over, you will see less participation and the economic benefits coming from those sites.”

“The problem is with DOE’s procurement process. It seems to me that nine out of 10 DOE contracts are protested, and when that happens, it really kills a small business,” another attendee commented. “In Idaho we had one rebid four or five times, and small businesses don’t have the resources to deal with that. As a community, we are very, very frustrated. If it goes on and on and on, it really disrupts a community.”

Kirshenberg noted that six land transfers have been made from DOE to local communities and that 15 more are in progress. “The effort focuses not on just land but facilities assets, equipment assets, infrastructure assets, technology, natural resources at the sites, and the workforces,” Kirshenberg said.

On the downside, DOE leadership is pushing to charge “fair market value” for land transfers instead of conveying them at no charge. Participants said much of the land that has been transferred needs so much remediation it cannot be given away. “Appraisers should take into account the contamination to reflect fair market value,” was one comment.

Communities surrounding Fukushima have requested help from ECA communities on how to interact with the government on cleanup issues and on dealing with public perception problems. “There’s not a lot of money involved. We’re just trying to create some strong partnerships in helping these communities in Japan with our knowledge and expertise,” Kirshenberg said.

Kirshenberg urged continued involvement from ECA members.

“I consider you to be important and incredibly essential stakeholders in everything at the local level. You all know your communities and the issues in your communities, and I think you’re essential in advising the department across the board.”