Hanford Advisory Board deserves better from DOE

The Department of Energy wants to make the Hanford Advisory Board more like similar panels at other sites.

It ought to be the other way around.

HAB has proved its mettle during nearly two decades in existence, offering sound policy advice and bringing an independent perspective to the complex task of cleaning up Hanford.

The board has championed worker safety and fought against shortcuts that would have left more contamination in the ground.

It's telling that the push for changes comes from Washington, D.C., not Hanford -- and even more telling that the chief justification is to make HAB conform to DOE policy on advisory councils.

No one can beat a Washington bureaucrat for putting policy above substance.

The changes imposed from on high would include term limits for members representing some Hanford employees on the board and the general public.

DOE Hanford officials and DOE headquarters officials are continuing talks on additional changes to the board, but they've declined to say what those might be.

In other words, the public is being left out of a discussion that promises to have profound effects on the panel that represents them in the cleanup process.

It reminds us of the bad old days of federal hubris ("trust us, we're from the government") that made Hanford the nation's biggest environmental mess in the first place.

Some structural changes might make HAB even stronger, and some good ideas for improvements might even come out of DOE headquarters.

But this latest attempt to impose changes is heavy-handed and insular. As a result, any initiative to come out of it is certain to make HAB less effective.

In fact, the cynic in us can't help but think that may be DOE's intent. It's difficult to decipher any motive other than a desire to weaken an independent voice and make it more malleable to DOE's will.

DOE can't create a better advisory board in a vacuum. Anyone who is sincere about improving an organization would surely include the affected group in the discussion.

Cate Alexander, the designated federal officer for the eight Environment Management Site Specific Advisory Boards, which includes the Hanford board, has pointed to the need for greater diversity as one reason to institute changes.

But the Hanford board is designed to represent a broad cross-section of stakeholders, ensuring a high degree of diversity.

The 32 seats are divided among groups representing Hanford-area cities and governments, organized labor, public health, the public-at-large, Hanford workers, regional environmental and civic groups, universities and Northwest tribes. Those groups pick their own members, who DOE approves.

If Alexander or others at DOE think some groups are underrepresented on the board, why not work with the panel to fill the gaps?

The advisory board proved it can make adjustments to address DOE concerns in 2008, when members agreed to a revised charter after two years of discussions with DOE.

DOE didn't get everything it wanted, but that's how independent advice works. The panel is designed to represent the public, not the department's interest.

If DOE is sincere about improving the Hanford Advisory Board, it first needs to make its goals clear. Then it must negotiate changes that help meet those objectives without weakening the board's role.

The path the department has chosen instead will only expand public distrust and diminish the value of HAB's advice.