Former Energy Secretary Opposes Bush Proposal to Dismantle Worker Safety Agency

A Bush administration proposal to rework an Energy Department agency that oversees nuclear and worker safety has run into opposition from a former energy secretary and others.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was Energy Secretary in the Clinton administration, sent a letter to current Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman this week criticizing the proposal to merge the Office of Environment Safety and Health with other DOE agencies.

"The DOE plan downgrades and weakens safety and health protections," Richardson wrote. Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire also signed the letter. Both have large Energy Department nuclear facilities in their states.

"Given the absence of any external studies demonstrating that this office is dysfunctional or ineffective, there appears to be no compelling reason to reduce or change its function," the letter said.

The office is in charge of establishing health and safety rules for DOE and contractor employees. It also oversees health studies and medical screening programs and environmental impact statements related to agency activities.

Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell said in a recent interview that the office has had varying levels of success over the years and that the proposal would make the agency stronger and more efficient.

Energy Department officials deny the change would weaken health and safety standards. "The department's top commitment to our more than 110,000 (contractor and DOE) employees is to ensure the safest possible working environment," DOE spokeswoman Megan Barnett said Wednesday.

She added that nothing had been finalized. "We are currently revising the specifics of this proposal to reflect feedback from members of Congress, our employees and other interested parties," Barnett said.

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., says he is concerned health and safety matters might get lost in the shuffle. He also noted that the Energy Department's annual spending bill was to be considered by the Senate in coming weeks and said lawmakers might use that to block the proposed change.