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The Department of Energy's Support for the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, Part 1

Tuesday, July 17, 2007 - 12:00am
Washington, DC
Joint Hearing of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight and the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment

Opening Statement By Chairman Brad Miller (Investigations & Oversight)

An enormous amount of effort has gone into undercutting the support for a very small, but very important lab. The Savannah River Ecology Lab, housed on the Savannah River nuclear site since 1951 and run by the University of Georgia, has an unparalleled record of scientific contributions to the environmental sciences.

Headquarters staff at the Department of Energy, right up to the former head of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs, the current Deputy Secretary and the Secretary himself, have all played a role in trying to eliminate funding from the Department for the lab. Why would any of these figures spend even one minute worrying about a $4 million a year lab when they have to manage a $26 billion a year enterprise?

The question could just as easily be put to the Committee: why do we care about the loss of such a small lab?

The answer is easy: We care because while the dollar impact of the lab is small, the scientific importance of the lab has been enormous. Scientific research, and that was the core mission of the lab for most of its fifty-one years, is not about a return on an investment today but about giving us understanding that will guide our actions tomorrow. It is hard to put a price tag on such knowledge.

The lab certainly contributed to the mission of the Department of Energy and the site in very direct ways. The documents we will enter into the record today, and the story that the former director Dr. Paul Bertsch will tell makes it abundantly clear that the Departmental managers at the site valued the lab for all its contributions.

The lab plays an essential role in the Savannah River site’s need to meet environmental regulatory compliance requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The lab also has helped manage the SRS National Environmental Research Park through public education and tour efforts. The lab conducts environmental outreach programs for DOE that give the site more credibility in the eyes of the local communities because the lab is seen as being independent of the Department. In all these ways and more, the lab was essential to the functioning of the site—or at least it was so viewed by site management. And, all of that for $4 million dollars a year.


These conclusions are not based on hearsay or speculation, but a careful review of the Department's own materials. Many of those materials are being made public today and public scrutiny is long overdue.

Just as an example, the tasks that DOE asked the lab to submit in February went through a "technical peer review." In other places, including a letter to Representative Barrow and a statement from a DOE spokesperson that was prominently placed in the local press, the tasks supposedly went through scientific peer reviews. No peer review of any kind ever occurred - DOE staff admitted that to Subcommittee staff in a meeting some weeks ago.

A different kind of review was done at the behest of headquarters—one that seems unprecedented and invented solely for the situation. Headquarters instructed the site to evaluate each task to see if it met a “mission critical” need in 2007. No one at the site knew that that meant. In the environmental management offices that invented the standard, “mission critical” meant one thing - does it clean up waste right now, today, or not. If work doesn’t do that, then the work is not worth funding.

It is a process designed to give one outcome and one outcome only. No science lab in the country does research that pays dividends in the next six months. That is just not what science is about. A handful of people at headquarters gutted a lab that is internationally renowned for work that has saved the taxpayer millions, maybe billions of dollars.

One question eludes us: Why?

It is hard to believe that the effort to close the lab is really about $4 million.

We look forward to Departmental witnesses joining us at a later date. Mr. Clay Sell had agreed to appear today, but personal circumstances have pulled him away. We are working to find another date before the recess where we can have the Department in to explain their conduct and their letters to the Subcommittees and the Congress.

Now, I would like to recognize Mr. Lampson, the distinguished Chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee.

Opening Statement By Chairman Nick Lampson (Energy & Environment)

We are here today to try to solve a mystery involving the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL) – a laboratory associated with the University of Georgia and located on the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site.

What is SREL? Well, it is a laboratory whose work has saved the taxpayers millions of dollars in remediation cost. A laboratory that has the confidence of the local communities in South Carolina and Georgia adjacent to the Savannah River Site and the enthusiastic support of the Citizens Advisory Council associated with the site. A laboratory that has been in existence since the 1950’s when the Savannah River Site was established. It was founded by one of our nation’s most eminent ecologists – Dr. Eugene Odum – and it has maintained invaluable continuous long-term data sets on important animals and plants. This laboratory, in conjunction with the University of Georgia, has trained hundreds of environmental scientists and has run popular and successful public education and outreach programs on the Savannah River Site. SREL has also assisted the Site in its efforts to comply with federal and state environmental laws. It also manages one of the seven National Environmental Research Parks in a network of ecologically important sites that exist on DOE property across the country. The Savannah River Ecology Laboratory has provided these services to the taxpayer at a cost of less than $10 million dollars per year.

Well, this is a record of achievement that any organization would be proud of, and certainly one that deserves recognition. And what is their reward for these 50 years of service? Well, they have certainly been recognized by DOE Headquarters. They have been rewarded with a loss of funding in the middle of the fiscal year leading to layoffs and essentially the closure of the laboratory – a move that places the ongoing research and the continuity of long-term data sets in grave jeopardy; bad faith bargaining in the renewal of a cooperative agreement with their federal partner – the Department of Energy; and the dismissal of the laboratory’s Director – apparently by personal request of the Secretary of Energy to the President of the University of Georgia.

I simply do not know what to make of this. I feel as if I am in the middle of Wonderland with Alice.

The callous treatment of the employees of SREL is disgraceful. Beyond the hardship inflicted on them by the sudden, unexpected job loss – this decision is absurd. It is not in the interest of the people of South Carolina and Georgia, the Savannah River Site, the Department of Energy, or the rest of the nation.

We have witnesses with us today who will be able to tell us about this laboratory, its history and it work. Dr. Paul Bertsch, the former Director of the laboratory, will be able to tell us about the events of the past few years that have brought us here today.

We will hear from the Department of Energy at another hearing, but I am not confident that we will ever fully understand why the headquarters of the Department of Energy has spent a great deal of time and effort to close a world-class laboratory with an excellent record of service to the Department, to the nation, and to the local community. I believe the ultimate reasons for this absurd and ill-advised decision may be a mystery we will not be able to solve. Hopefully, we will reverse this decision and restore this laboratory so that it may continue its good work.


Panel 1

1 - Hon. John Barrow
A Representative in Congress from the State of Georgia
Download the Witness Testimony

Panel 2

1 - Dr. Paul M. Bertsch
Former Director Savannah River Ecology Laboratory University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Laboratory University of Georgia

Panel 3

2 - Dr. Jerald L. Schnoor
Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering Co-Director, Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research University of Iowa Co-Director, Center for Globa
Download the Witness Testimony

1 - Dr. F. Ward Whicker
Professor, Radiological Health Sciences Colorado State University Colorado State University
Download the Witness Testimony

Witness Panels
Panel 1
Rep. John Barrow speaks to the Subcommittee during a hearing
Rep. John Barrow
Panel 2
Dr. Whicker testifies before the Subcommittee.
Dr. Whicker
Dr. Schnoor testifies before the Subcommittee.
Dr. Schnoor
For information on the witnesses, use the links at left

Additional Documents

Memo to DOE Secretary Bodman

Background document on SREL

110th Congress