Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee member Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., quietly reproached Bruce Carnes, DOE's chief financial officer, for what she termed the department's "creative accounting" in allocating funds for work at Hanford. The nuclear reservation there stores millions of gallons of radioactive waste in underground tanks, some of which have leaked, threatening the Columbia River, a primary water source for the state.
"To fall behind in Hanford cleanup is not only a violation of (consent orders), it's unacceptable to the people of Washington and the Northwest," Cantwell said. "Nonetheless, the administration proposes a 20 percent cut of nearly $262 million in funding for Hanford cleanup."
White House plans for replacing those funds seem to involve questionable accounting practices similar to those in the Enron scandal, Cantwell said, and could result in even sharper losses for the Hanford budget. She asked Carnes for assurances that the project would continue to move forward.
Carnes denied any improprieties in the budgeting process, and said DOE can meet the requirements of the consent orders and other legal agreements. The department would return to Congress next year for additional funds if necessary, he said.
"Hanford is an extremely high priority for us," Carnes said. "We feel we must do whatever we can to hasten the cleanup of these sites and achieve real reduction in risk. This means in some cases looking at (details of) various agreements."
Cantwell stressed that the agreements already include explicit deadlines for improvements, so further negotiations in the matter would constitute breaking the agreement. Carnes couldn't give any assurances the agreements wouldn't be reviewed, but promised to work with state and local officials on the matter.
At the same hearing, a senior Interior Department official said the Bureau of Indian Affairs would immediately start using operational funds to issue overdue checks for Indian trust fund recipients.
The BIA is embroiled in a long-running legal battle over inefficient management of Indian trust funds. Interior Secretary Gale Norton was scheduled to discuss the budget with the committee, but instead had to prepare for a court appearance in the case, said Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles.
The department understands the necessity for handing out trust fund payments promptly, Griles said, but has been stymied by a court-ordered shutdown of its fund management software.
"Last night I sent a letter to House and Senate appropriators, informing them that we will take money from our appropriation side and begin to pay individual Indian accounts a percentage of the monies we know are in there," Griles said. "We can't continue to allow the individual Indians not to get money; they're going bankrupt and lacking important care."
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., committee chairman, asked if the letter amounted to a request to reprogram the department's current budget. Griles said no and added that the trust fund system should be restarted quickly enough to allow the operational budget to be reimbursed this year, he said.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the department must realize it's incapable of handling the trust funds and contract the job out to professional managers. The department is considering such action, but a change of that magnitude would require congressional action, Griles said.
Griles also mentioned another bone of contention in the Interior Department's operations, the Klamath River Basin water-management crisis in California and Oregon. The department has been criticized for relying on endangered species laws for withholding river flows needed for irrigation.
A recently released National Academy of Sciences study said the department's decisions lack any scientific basis. Secretary Norton has ordered the department to evaluate the study and report back to her on available options by the end of this week, Griles said.