Accelerating Threats to DOE Lands

Two recent announcements by DOE suggest that the agency is accelerating the pace of selling DOE land. A February 29, 2000, notice in the Federal Register announced a new DOE regulation (read it in HTML or PDF), effective immediately, establishing a process for "disposing of" unneeded DOE land for economic development. Two weeks later, a DOE press release announced a new effort to review the agency's real estate needs.

DOE Regulation on Real Property Transfers

The new DOE regulation, 10 CFR Part 770, "Transfer of Real Property at Defense Nuclear Facilities for Economic Development," was issued as an "interim final rule" effective immediately, even though there had been no prior public notice of the proposed rule. However, comments were invited to be considered in finalizing the rule.

The regulation, which applies to the Oak Ridge Reservation and other DOE sites, defines a process for land transfers in support of economic development (something that did not exist previously). In effect, it streamlines the process of land transfer. It identifies "community reuse organizations" (CROs) such as CROET as important players, but it appears to allow DOE to sell, lease, or give land to individuals or any type of organization if the transfer is in support of economic development.

The regulation says that each year DOE reviews its real property holdings to identify property that is no longer needed for DOE missions. It requires that DOE field office managers must each year give the established CRO (every DOE site has one) and other interested entities a list of the real property that may be transferred for economic development. In addition, anyone may request that the field office make any specific property available for possible transfer in support of economic development.

After a prospective purchaser or lessee approaches DOE with a proposal for a sale or lease, DOE has just 90 days to respond with an indication of the agency's intended action. The regulation requires that defense committees in both houses of the U.S. Congress must be notified before any transfer and that DOE must comply with the National Environmental Policy Act before completing a transfer, but the Federal Register notice suggests that public participation probably is not needed "because the proposals are likely to be generated by or in coordination with a CRO."

DOE Review of Real Property Needs

Just two weeks later, a DOE press release about some agency management reforms contained the statement: "Secretary Richardson directed Deputy Secretary T. J. Glauthier to lead a review of the real property needs of department facilities. The review will result in long-term recommendations for tailoring real estate needs to mission requirements. This will help to ensure that property holdings are realistic and cost effective."

This is scary if you remember that a couple of years ago the DOE inspector general declared that the entire Oak Ridge National Environmental Research Park (NERP) was excess to DOE needs and should be sold (see IG Report No.  DOE/IG-0399). The IG was able to reach this conclusion because they didn't recognize environmental science research as a part of the DOE mission. When DOE talks about trying to "tailor real estate needs to mission requirements" and "ensuring that property holdings are realistic and cost effective," we must assume that the agency might be talking about selling off the Oak Ridge Reservation.

Review of "real property needs" typically is done by DOE real estate specialists. DOE-ORO real estate staff have stated publicly that determination of whether a property is "underutilized" or "excess" to DOE needs is a purely technical determination that does not require public involvement. Past experience indicates that once a parcel is found to be excess to DOE needs, an inexorable "property disposal" process is set in motion before the public becomes aware of the situation.

Some DOE officials have told us that this effort should not harm the Oak Ridge NERP, because both the research park and health-and-safety buffers are needed for DOE's mission here. However, DOE's draft strategic plan (which was available for public comment during March) did not mention outdoor environmental research as a part of DOE's mission nor identify the NERPs as resources for DOE's science mission. If NERPs are not identified as necessary to DOE's mission, DOE real estate personnel may feel justified in declaring them to be excess to DOE's needs.

Action Needed

Taken together, these two initiatives must be treated as a major assault on the Oak Ridge Reservation. Even if official comment deadlines have past, we all need to be contacting DOE officials and our elected representatives about:

Comments on the rule should be sent in triplicate to James M. Cayce, U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Management and Administration, MA-53, 1000 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20585. The official comment deadline was April 14, but late comments are likely to considered.

AFORR has written to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson regarding the review of real property needs, but additional communications should be helpful. In June we received a reply from David Kraus, DOE Director of Management and Administration.

-- Advocates for the Oak Ridge Reservation, April 2000. Updated June 14, 2000.

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