AIKEN - The citizen watchdog group that monitors Savannah River Site is being forced to reorganize, and some say the move will limit its ability to independently scrutinize environmental concerns at the nuclear reservation.
The SRS Citizens Advisory Board has been managed by the site's private contractor, now called Washington Savannah River Co., since its inception in 1994. The 25-person committee is made up of volunteers from Georgia and South Carolina who meet regularly with site officials and look out for the public good.
Now, however, the federal Energy Department, which owns SRS, wants to manage the advisory board itself or have a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation or certified small business do it.
The Energy Department, which created citizen advisory boards at several of its complexes, already has forced its other panels to make the switch.
Karen Patterson, the chairwoman of the SRS advisory board, says the move is unnecessary.
"The issue is us losing our independence," she said.
One concern is money. This year, the Energy Department gave the advisory board $347,000. Of that, the board will likely spend between $225,000 and $250,000, Ms. Patterson said.
Some will go toward travel and meeting expenses. Another portion will pay the salaries of three Washington Savannah River employees who oversee day-to-day operations, including board administrator Dawn Haygood, who has worked with the panel since its start.
Ms. Patterson said the board has ruled out Energy Department oversight for obvious reasons. It doesn't like the 501(c)(3) model, either.
By opting for an independent small business, she estimates the board's expenses would climb close to $400,000.
That's because the board would have to pick up the employee insurance and benefit expenses, which Washington Savannah River now covers.
The more the board pays its administrator, the less money it has to investigate environmental concerns at the site, Ms. Patterson said.
"It will make it easier (for the Energy Department) to direct us in the direction that they want us to go," she said.
Another concern is the loss of institutional knowledge that Ms. Haygood and her Washington colleagues possess. While it's possible Ms. Haygood could work for whoever takes over, she said she has no plans to do so. She was reluctant to discuss the situation.
"I really can't comment on it," she said. Though, she added, "the institutional memory is very important for the board."
Until now, Energy Department officials at SRS have obliged the board's wishes. Officials at the agency's Washington headquarters started converting other boards around the country two years ago.
"We said for as long as we could, we would leave it as it was," said Bill Taylor, an Energy Department spokesman at SRS.
"Nobody wants to control the (board)," he said. "The department values its independent opinions."
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The SRS Citizens Advisory Board must decide by October who will manage it: the federal Department of Energy, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation or a certified small business.