Our Voice: New Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz shows mettle in Tri-Cities

At times, the Department of Energy appears to view the community surrounding Hanford as just another obstacle to overcome in advancing the agenda of distant bureaucrats.

That not only is annoying but also dangerous.

So it was refreshing to see new U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz make a visit to Hanford one of his first official actions, and especially heartening for him to begin his visit with a 90-minute meeting with several Tri-City mayors and county and port commissioners.

The residents of the Mid-Columbia are full partners in the cleanup of Hanford. Success depends on how well the people here do their jobs. Our community's economic and environmental health is inextricably linked to what happens at Hanford.

It's astounding to realize Moniz is breaking new ground in reaching out to the community most responsible for the environmental work at Hanford, and most directly in harm's way if it's not done right.

But Kennewick Mayor Steve Young told the Herald that Moniz was the first energy secretary to meet with Mid-Columbia elected officials in the 30 years he has been involved with the nuclear reservation.

That's a shameful record and Moniz deserves credit for breaking it.

There is plenty to like about the new secretary's short tenure. His willingness to meet with local officials is a promising step, but more significantly, he's taken the time to understand the issues important to the Tri-Cities.

"It's been a long time since I've been this positive about what I was hearing out of D.C., but this man really gets it," Young said.

Moniz backed proposals for a national park site at the B Reactor and using cleaned-up land near Richland for economic development -- issues that are getting some attention in Congress as amendments to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act.

But Moniz also criticized changes in the way federal small-business requirements are imposed at Hanford -- an issue that requires a bit deeper dive to understand just how crucial it is to the Tri-Cities.

The Small Business Administration has set a goal that at least 7 percent of the approximately $2 billion in federally funded work done at Hanford each year be awarded to small businesses.

It sounds good on the surface, and former Energy Secretary Steven Chu supported it.

The problem is Hanford already exceeds that requirement by a comfortable margin, with almost $500 million in contracts going to small businesses.

The SBA doesn't count that work because most of it is subcontracted by DOE contractors rather than directly by the government. Only 1.3 percent of Hanford work is contracted directly by DOE to small businesses.

For DOE to bump that figure up to 7 percent, it would have to go outside the area to find small contractors. In effect, meeting the new requirement likely would mean transferring contracts from local companies to small firms outside the Mid-Columbia.

It's counterproductive and only makes sense if the goal is to check off an item on some bureaucratic list rather than actually help small businesses. The fact that Moniz was quick to grasp the problem and come down on the right side of the issue is encouraging.

"I tell you this secretary understands (the local officials' position), agrees with it, supports it and is willing to fight for the small businesses of this community," Young said.

The honeymoon phase of Moniz's tenure has hardly begun, and we're not completely enthralled with his showing last week. Leaders who met with Moniz said he was "noncommittal" in his support for transferring 1.641 acres of surplus Hanford land for industrial development. We'd prefer to see a commitment -- and a strong one at that.

But all in all, Moniz is off to a good start on dealing with Hanford issues. The entire Northwest will be watching.