Program Review: Energy Cleanup

This report, the latest in a series responding to the Act's mandate, updates and adds new information on the use of Recovery Act funds for Department of Energy cleanup projects.

What GAO Found

The Recovery Act provided $6 billion to the Department of Energy (DOE) that it is using to clean up 17 sites contaminated by radioactive and hazardous wastes from decades of nuclear research and weapons production.

Office of Environmental Management Recovery Act-Funded Jobs Peaked at about 11,000 FTE Employees Late in Fiscal Year 2010

From October 2009 through March 2012, the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) employees funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act) and working on Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Environmental Management (EM) cleanup projects peaked at about 11,000 FTEs in the quarter ending September 2010, according to data on the federal government’s Recovery Act website. By the second quarter of fiscal year 2012, as projects were completed, FTEs had decreased to about 1,400 FTEs; 12 of 17 sites reported no Recovery Act FTEs; and about $5.6 billion of a total $6 billion in Recovery Act funds had been spent.

EM Has Completed Most Projects, but Inconsistent Data Make Assessing Project Performance Difficult

According to EM data, as of April 30, 2012, 78 of the 112 Recovery Act-funded cleanup projects were complete, and 72 of the 78 projects met DOE’s performance standard of completing project work scope without exceeding the cost target by more than 10 percent. According to EM officials, the completed Recovery Act projects have helped accelerate the cleanup at the sites. GAO, however, found several inconsistencies in how EM set and documented projects’ scope, cost, and schedule targets. Without clear scope, cost, or schedule targets in performance baselines, it becomes difficult to assess project performance. For example, in some cases, EM set scope targets differently in different documents and claimed project success even if key performance parameters were not achieved. Current guidance on setting performance baselines is more comprehensive for capital asset projects, such as building or demolishing facilities or constructing remediation systems, than for projects known as operation activity projects, such as operating a groundwater treatment plant. In addition, capital asset projects costing under $10 million are classified as operation activity projects.

Project Management Problems Occurred on EM Recovery Act Projects, and EM Is Taking Steps to Identify Lessons Learned

Some of EM’s long-standing project management problems occurred during its implementation of several Recovery Act projects, primarily insufficient early planning before setting performance baselines. For example, a project to remove wastes from a landfill at one site exceeded its $111 million cost target by $20 million because, after beginning the project, officials determined that the site would need to be excavated to a depth of almost double that planned. In addition, EM’s new initiative to reclassify projects as either capital asset or operation activity projects raised concerns about how projects were reclassified. EM does not have a clear policy that sets out under what conditions and how EM should break a capital asset project into smaller, discrete operation activity projects. Project classification is important, however, because some requirements apply only to capital asset projects. EM’s guidance for projects classified as operation activity projects under this initiative states that certain approval and reporting requirements will not be applied, and others will be applied as appropriate. Some DOE and other officials expressed concern that projects could be broken into smaller projects to avoid the requirements. For example, a $30 million project, partially funded with Recovery Act funds, was divided into 18 smaller projects, each below the $10 million threshold. The cost for one of these smaller projects eventually doubled—from $8 million to $16 million—but was not reclassified as a capital asset project. EM has been gathering information on lessons learned from Recovery Act projects, some of which could be applied as corrective measures to other EM cleanup work.

GAO's RecommendationsBack to top

To help ensure that EM more effectively manages all its projects, GAO recommends, among other things, that DOE (1) clarify guidance on developing and documenting project performance baselines and (2) issue a policy that sets out the criteria with greater specificity for reclassifying capital asset projects over $10 million into smaller operation activity projects under $10 million. DOE agreed with GAO’s recommendations.