Nuclear Safety Issues Cloud Bush Choice for Energy Undersecretary

By Josey Ballenger

WASHINGTON, DC, April 25, 2001 (ENS) - President George W. Bush's choice as undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Energy is Robert Card, who until yesterday was CEO and president of the company overseeing cleanup of the mothballed Rocky Flats nuclear weapons factory near Denver, Colorado.

Card, president and CEO for Kaiser-Hill Company since 1996, would be the third ranking official in the department, which oversees the nation's energy programs and nuclear facilities, including Rocky Flats. If confirmed, he would head the energy, science and environment portfolio under Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

While Card was in charge of Kaiser-Hill, the nuclear cleanup contractor was fined or penalized more than $725,000 for numerous worker safety, procurement and other violations.

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Cleanup worker handles wet combustible radioactive plutonium residue at Rocky Flats. (Photo courtesy U.S. Dept of Energy)
Card's selection is another troubling sign for many environmentalists, along the lines of recent White House decisions to reverse some Clinton era environmental measures and the abandonment of Bush's campaign pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Bush opponents contend that the new administration is filling its ranks mostly with industry driven people who do not necessarily have the best track records on the environment.

While Card headed the Kaiser-Hill, which holds a $4 billion contract to clean up and close Rocky Flats, a manager from the Department of Energy (DOE) reprimanded the company for having poor management and a "serious deficiency" in safety performance.

Card himself acknowledged earlier this year to DOE and to the U.S. General Accounting Office that the company had "a particularly disturbing negative trend in safety performance over the last quarter of calendar year 2000."

Four different state and federal agencies have criticized, if not fined, Kaiser-Hill for its performance at Rocky Flats over the past five years.

But Card supporters, from both major political parties, say that Kaiser-Hill is one of the country's better nuclear contractors, that it is a step up from Rocky Flats' previous operators, and that it has improved its safety record every year, while meeting or beating deadlines.

Card's nomination papers have not been sent to the Senate, which means his nomination is not yet formal, and no confirmation hearing has been scheduled. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee staff members said that May is the earliest that Card's hearing could take place.

Before Card reached the helm of Kaiser-Hill, he was vice president of business development and planning, and then of environmental affairs, at CH2M Hill Companies. He remains a senior vice president of CH2M Hill, a Denver based engineering, consulting and construction group that was found in the early 1990s to have overbilled the federal government $5 million for inappropriate Superfund expenditures.

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Third from left, Robert Card stands with others on the Board of Directors of CH2M Hill (Photo courtesy CH2M Hill)
He is also a board member and shareholder of CH2M Hill, which reported $1.7 billion in revenue in 2000 and owns 50 percent of Kaiser-Hill.

Bush announced his intention March 7 to nominate Card to be one of two DOE undersecretaries. Card gave up his Kaiser-Hill presidency within days of the announcement, then stepped down as CEO on April 24. He remains a senior vice president of Kaiser-Hill.

The work to clean up what is now known as the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site involves plutonium stabilization and packaging, shipment of waste to disposal sites, the decontamination, and decomissioning of buildings. It means working with dangerous material in dangerous situations. Kaiser-Hill has a history of safety violations at Rocky Flats.

In 2000, the DOE field office in Colorado docked Kaiser-Hill a total of $410,000 for three safety violations at the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site. The former atomic bomb trigger factory factory is riddled with plutonium, uranium and other hazardous materials, which Kaiser-Hill is under contract to clean up.

Those penalties, which came out of the company's fees under its contract with DOE, were for inadequate operation of a ventilation system that led to the spread of radioactive contamination, for several waste handling infractions and for insufficient work controls.

Kaiser-Hill also attracted public attention in May 2000 when DOE admitted to a House subcommittee that the company had improperly billed the federal government nearly $200,000 to reimburse a subcontractor's legal costs for fighting the case involving a whistleblower. Kaiser-Hill subsequently returned the money.

Since 1996, another DOE enforcement office in Washington has levied fines against Kaiser-Hill totaling $316,250 for other problems at Rocky Flats. Those fines - which the company had to pay directly to the U.S. Treasury - were for purchasing 69 defective nuclear waste containers, for not taking adequate corrective actions, for exposing workers to radiation and for work control deficiencies. Two additional enforcement warnings have been issued since August 2000.

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Demolition of Rocky Flats Building 779, the first major plutonium building in the U.S. to be demolished. (Photo courtesy U.S. Dept of Energy)
The recent escalation in fines, combined with two safety infractions in December, prompted the DOE Rocky Flats manager to write a letter to Card in January, detailing her "serious concerns regarding the safety performance" of the Kaiser-Hill management team.

A U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report to Congress in February said that safety problems were part of "significant and complex challenges [that] must be overcome" in order for DOE and Kaiser-Hill to meet Rocky Flats' 2006 closure deadline.

Card acknowledged in a February 13 response to GAO's director of natural resources and environment that, while the company had improved its overall safety performance every year, "there was a particularly disturbing negative trend in safety performance over the last quarter of calendar year 2000."

"DOE doesn't fine lightly; they really don't. It takes a lot for them to fine," a senior congressional staff member familiar with DOE contracts said. "They only will issue a fine after they've worked with the contractor for a long time to [try to] fix the problem."

Support for Card as undersecretary is mixed. Environmentalists, some Denver area citizens, local authorities and union workers say Kaiser-Hill's track record at Rocky Flats leaves plenty of room for improvement.

"Their safety record has improved over the past five years, but it warrants a lot of interest and scrutiny. The uptick we saw in the last few months is something we needed to address," said Steve Gunderson, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's primary overseer of the Rocky Flats cleanup. "If they seriously hurt or kill someone up there, it'll prevent their ability to get anything done" because of resultant building closures and delays.

The state has twice fined DOE, as Rocky Flats' owner and manager, a combined $585,000 for Kaiser-Hill's improper handling of hazardous waste since 1998. Gunderson's department also fined DOE $40,000 in September after the company missed a contractual deadline to have a waste facility ready. Those costs have not been passed on to Kaiser-Hill.

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Repackaging radioactive salts at Rocky Flats (Photo courtesy U.S. Dept of Energy)
"Kaiser-Hill came into Rocky Flats and didn't have the experience doing what they're doing. It's a steep learning curve, and they have had problems repetitively," said LeRoy Moore, a co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, a grassroots organization in Boulder that follows Rocky Flats and nuclear issues.

Moore accused the company and past DOE field office managers of downplaying Kaiser-Hill's occupational safety violations and "trying to keep us quiet" about issues of concern.

Kaiser-Hill spokeswoman Jennifer Thompson said Card would not grant interviews until the confirmation process wis over. Regarding Card's possible compensation, recusals or divestments, she said, "Bob isn't the first from the private sector to serve at a high level (of government); there is a specific protocol to be followed."

The White House press office did not return a call seeking comment.

Others familiar with Rocky Flats or the nuclear cleanup business in general called Card an acceptable, if not ideal, choice.

"You need someone with practical experience on the ground," Senator Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican, recently told the Energy Communities Alliance, a group of local governments affected by DOE activities. "He has to be one of the foremost experts on cleanup."

Keith Christopher, director of the DOE office that regulates nuclear safety, said in an interview, "Yes, I've fined them two or three times, and I'm probably going to again in the next month." Given the complexity of the Rocky Flats job, and compared to other contractors, Christopher said, "I think they've slipped a little bit in the past few months - but overall they're not bad."

"Among contractors, Bob is one of the better ones," said a Clinton era DOE official who still works on nuclear issues and wished to remain anonymous. "It was a long road with him. We fought in the beginning, but in the end he was committed to safety and doing it right."

Located in Golden, Colorado, Kaiser-Hill acquired the contract to clean up Rocky Flats in 1995. The contract was renewed in 2000 to include accelerated closure of the Superfund site by December 2006. Unused as a production facility since 1989, it is the world's first major nuclear manufacturing site slated for demolition.

The Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site is online at: http://www.rfets.gov/

{Josey Ballenger is a reporter with The Public i, an investigative report of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, DC.}