DOE needs better oversight of environmental management

The U.S. Energy Department’s Environmental Management program, which oversees many major projects at Savannah River Site, needs to improve its accountability, timing, structure and reporting requirements, according to a special committee created by Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

“Basic weaknesses in how EM programs and projects are organized raise significant barriers to successful delivery of projects,” the committee concluded, after visiting and evaluating four major projects, including the Salt Waste Processing Facility at SRS.

The committee said that the division’s Washington headquarters, with 300 federal employees, has undergone frequent personnel changes that have clouded its structure and forced field personnel to ignore the chain of command to deal with people they believe can answer their questions.

“In short, it’s a ‘who-you-know’ organization rather than an organization with clearly defined roles and responsibilities,” the committee wrote.

Although there were many recommendations for improvement, the committee also found that the federal and contractor project teams were well qualified and held appropriate levels of experience.

Turnover among federal project managers, however, remains a perennial problem. “The significant turnover of key project management positions has led to inefficiencies.”

Acting assistant energy secretary Dave Huizenga, in a written response to the committee’s report, said the committee’s recommendations will be taken seriously as efforts are made to make the section more efficient.

“The changes we make are not something that happens over night, but it is the sustained commitment to be better in what we do every day and openly engage on the areas where we can improve,” he said.

The Energy Department’s Office of Environmental Management received about $6 billion in American Recovery & Reinvestment Act stimulus funds, of which $1.6 billion was allocated to Savannah Rive Site.

FINDINGS

Accountability: Roles and responsibilities for project management are not well understood.

Decision making: A clearer chain of command and more authority for program managers would reduce confusion and delays.

Culture: Pressure to make projects appear on schedule and within budget “has had negative consequences.”

Stability: Personnel turnover has led to a loss of technical ability, leadership skills and project knowledge.

Structure: Completion of projects is hampered by lack of appropriate headquarters structure.

Peer review: Independent, external reviews occur too late and are conducted by inexperienced reviewers.

Alignment: Lack of defined project management roles create too many information requests to headquarters.

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