Cantwell Questions Energy Secretary Over Plan to Dissolve Energy Department’s Worker Safety Office

WASHINGTON, DC – Wednesday, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) questioned a proposal by the Department of Energy (DOE) to break up its Office for Environment, Safety and Health (ES&H). In a letter sent Wednesday to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, Cantwell expressed her reservations with the reorganization plan, requested specific details on the proposal, and asked DOE to explain how it would ensure a high worker safety standard in the future. Under the Energy Department’s plan, the responsibilities of the office for ES&H—currently headed by an assistant secretary—would be transferred to an office dealing with security.

“I have a hard time understanding how dissolving the office responsible for worker safety will actually enhance worker safety,” said Cantwell, a member of the Senate Energy Committee. “Our government has a responsibility to protect the health, safety, and security of current and retired workers. Eliminating the office that investigates reported safety and health failures hardly seems to make sense as a measure to make sure workers are protected; and simply moving the offices around within the agency will not by itself guarantee better worker protection. I hope that the Department of Energy will respond to my request for detailed information on how oversight in these crucial areas will actually improve under the proposed restructuring. Without more details, I will continue to have concerns about potential negative impacts on the Hanford workforce and the environment.”

Protecting the health, safety, and security of the workforce at Hanford and other DOE facilities remains a top priority for Cantwell. Earlier this month, Cantwell joined a coalition of senators calling on the Bush Administration to abandon a proposal to exclude new contract workers who work on DOE sites from participation in the agency’s guaranteed defined-benefit pension plan. This would adversely affect thousands of workers with Hanford-related jobs as well as many other DOE workers across the country. Cantwell has cosponsored legislation to block the change in DOE pension policies.

[The text of Cantwell’s letter to Secretary Bodman follows below]

May 24, 2006

Dear Secretary Bodman,

I am writing with regard to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) proposal to restructure the organization by dissolving the Office for Environment, Safety and Health (ES&H) and transferring its various responsibilities to other offices throughout DOE. The Department’s goal to improve its management practices is laudable. However, without adequate knowledge of the plan or assurances that the various missions within ES&H can be improved under a new organization, I must object to these proposed changes. I have serious concerns over dismantling the office that is responsible for ensuring that safety and health regulations are followed and fail to see how leaving vacant the position of Assistant Secretary will improve the worker safety and environmental protections that currently are in place.

Rather than enhance worker safety, I believe this proposal could negatively impact the agency’s mission to help protect America’s national and economic security if safeguards are not fully provided for its workers and the environment. To date, the Department of Energy has provided my office with scant details related to the proposed restructuring and how the present missions of ES&H will be enhanced following any restructuring. Therefore I respectfully request the Department provide detailed information about how policies on worker safety will be strengthened under the proposed restructuring.

As you are fully aware, the Office for Environment, Safety and Health has been tasked with an enormous responsibility - to ensure the well being of our workers, and the protection of our environment in a unique and challenging setting. First, ES&H provides environmental impact reviews of DOE activities. Second, ES&H responsibilities include investigating contractors’ violations, imposing penalties for violation, and conducting research on the health effects of radiation exposure on atomic bomb survivors. ES&H programs are very important in Washington state. For example, I worked with former Assistant Secretary John Shaw to ensure that the ES&H Former Worker Medical Surveillance Program remained in place. By shifting environmental and work safety responsibilities from ES&H to another department, the potential for diluting the resources available for these important activities is concerning. Workers are already facing uncertainty given the number of new policies being implemented at DOE in regards to pension and retiree health coverage, additional changes will only further the level of uncertainty and concern.

Given the unique complexity of ongoing clean-up work at the Hanford site in Washington State, it is necessary to have adequate federal resources available to ensure that environmental and worker safety standards are upheld. I am proud of the contributions that the Hanford workforce made in support of our national security during World War II and the Cold War. Without more details about the proposed restructuring, I will continue to have concerns about potential negative impacts on the Hanford workforce and the environment.

Can you please respond to the following questions:

  • What are the specific details of the restructuring proposal?
  • To what specific entities within DOE will the activities of ES&H be transferred to?
  • How will workers be impacted by the proposed change?
  • Would such a restructuring effort require legislative approval by the Congress in order to be enacted?

We must continue to work to address the complex environmental legacy stemming from Hanford’s nuclear activities while not undermining these efforts by potentially lessening our commitment to worker safety and environmental protection. Thank you for your attention to this important matter. I look forward to your timely response.


Maria Cantwell
United States Senator