Christine Gelles will not forget Valentine’s Day, Feb.14, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
“I had already had a really bad restaurant experience that day and then all of these reports came in,” she recalled 16 months later. “Life has been strange since then,”
That was the evening a barrel of plutonium waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory erupted at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the underground repository near Carlsbad in southern New Mexico. The blast contaminated 22 WIPP workers at the site and led to an indefinite closure of the facility that is still in effect.
As the deputy secretary for waste management in the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management, Gelles said WIPP and Los Alamos were both in her portfolio.
“You can imagine, Feb. 14, 2014 was not a great day for me,” she said at meeting Wednesday with a contractor group, the Energy Technology Environmental Business Association (ETEBA) in Santa Fe.
She recalled her involvement in the analysis of the incident over the next few months and in drafting the plan approved by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in November to begin a transition to split out the environmental management responsibilities at LANL to a separate contract. Two weeks before the deadline for putting a manager in place earlier this year Gelles said she was asked to fill the role on a temporary basis.
“I won’t say I jumped at it,” she said, but she also knew she had a contribution to make.
Sixteen months later she is within a few weeks from turning the job of acting manager of the EM field office in Los Alamos over to a permanent manager and returning to her post in Washington. On July 20, EM announced selection of Douglas E. Hintze as manager of the new EM field office at Los Alamos. Hintze has 22 years of experience in EM and has served as assistant manager for Mission Support at the DOE Savannah River Operations Office since September 2012.
Meanwhile, Gelles is moving forward on several fronts, preparing the transition from an environmental program that has been managed by the laboratory and its federal supervisor, the National Nuclear Security Administration. As she joins “hand in hand” with her partners, she notices distinctive preferences among them, different types of experience and “different outlooks on how you use contracts to drive performance.”
Because the site is so complex and environmental management is dispersed across the site and so integrated within laboratory infrastructure Gelles said, it was clear that EM couldn’t just snap its fingers and take charge of the government’s responsibilities much less manage a lot of contractors doing their work without risking higher costs or a lot of stumbling around.
“And that’s not how we want to perform,” she said. “All I can say is it’s complicated. Anybody who wants to do business at Los Alamos in cleanup world, wear your seatbelts because it’s going to be a little bit rocky here until we figure it all out.” She calls it, “our training-wheel period” and estimates that it will take two years to be ready to have a separate prime contract for the EM function at Los Alamos.
The FY16 budget that begins Oct. 1 is $189.6 million. That includes $75.4 million for the base program, the core groundwater management program, community commitment, tribal program and federal activities. $64 million will be devoted to fixing and resuming the nitrate treatment and transuranic waste shipments that were related to the radioactive release. $24 million is budgeted for work on two large groundwater projects, both involving contamination. One has to do with RDX, a laboratory explosive that could become a risk to the aquifer. The other concerns a chromium plume that was discovered in the aquifer nine years ago.
“We think this plume has reached the site boundary and could be off in the San Ildefonso sacred area, so we’re working as fast as we can,” Gelles said. “We have some work plans pending with the regulator (New Mexico Environment Department) right now.”
Another big question has to do with the fate of the Consent Order, signed with the New Mexico in 2005 that set forth a comprehensive plan and a definitive schedule with enforceable fines for cleaning up legacy wastes at the laboratory. That agreement remains in effect but it is obvious that the work has fallen well behind schedule.
A statement of “general principles” signed on April 30, 2015 by the parties states that New Mexico Environment Department, in view of a $73 million settlement related to the WIPP incident, will “consider in a timely manner a request for a permit modification” to cover missed deadlines and “enter into good faith discussions concerning the 2005 Consent Order for completion of the cleanup of legacy contamination and forego penalties so far assessed under the 2005 Consent Order.”
Although this sounds reasonably positive, it could also become a bone of contention. But Gelles has a positive interpretation. She said that the consent order was meant to drive the pace of the deliverables, but the baseline required to comply with the consent order was never fully funded so the annual adjustments and schedule changes that were needed began to change milestones.
“That was okay until the fires happened in 201l,” she said. That’s when (the state) wanted Los Alamos to rearrange those priorities and agreed to grant some relief on a lot of the traditional mediation planning activities in exchange for focusing on getting the excess transuranic waste out of danger from the fires, she added, which is how the “3706 campaign” began, accelerating the removal of 3,706 cubic meters of transuranic waste stored above ground. The deadline was June 30, 2014. “And we had eight out of 10 quarters really successfully, and we had one quarter to go when we had the breached container (at WIPP),” said Gelles. “We made great progress toward that, but look where we are now.”
Moving forward, Gelles is seeking to rebrand cleanup at the laboratory on a tenable foundation. “We are not the environmental restoration project at Los Alamos. We are the LANL legacy cleanup completion project,” she said. “We are a completion project, and once we get our baseline aligned with a revised consent order, we’re going to manage it like a project.”
A number of changes are coming down the pike that will affect many of those in that line of work and the kinds of contracts that are bid. The uncertainties seem certain to increase for the next year or two. That was why the contractors came to hear Gelles speak.The ETABA group that hosted the talk is the New Mexico chapter of an national association of small and medium sized businesses who work for the departments of energy and defense.
“It’s a challenge for small business to wait for things to drop, but it’s the nature of doing business with the government, and we’re well-versed on that,’ said Zeferino Banda of Banda International, the group’s chairman. “It’s challenging to keep business flowing, but events like this help us understand what’s happening. As business people trying to make payroll, we just need to know, so we can plan accordingly.”