DOE Real Property:

Better Data and a More Proactive Approach Needed to Facilitate Property Disposal

GAO-15-305: Published: Feb 25, 2015. Publicly Released: Feb 25, 2015.

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What GAO Found

From 2003 through 2013, the Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Environmental Management (EM)—the office responsible for the deactivation and decommissioning (D&D) of the agency's contaminated facilities—disposed of nearly 2,000 facilities across 19 sites in 13 states, according to EM data. The majority of these facilities were disposed of through demolition because of their contamination levels. During this time, EM also disposed of a limited number of uncontaminated facilities and land parcels through transfer by sale. EM transferred by sale 21 properties—13 facilities and 8 land parcels—at the Oak Ridge Reservation in Oak Ridge, Tennessee to a community reuse organization (CRO)—an organization whose purpose is to facilitate the reuse of unneeded DOE properties—and the local government.

DOE's ability to manage its decentralized property-disposal process is impeded by data limitations and an unclear policy. DOE and EM each maintain a database that contains information on facilities that are undergoing or have completed D&D. However, neither system collects all the information DOE officials would need to effectively manage this subgroup of its real property portfolio, such as when D&D of a facility started or was completed. In addition, DOE's database, which serves as the agency's source of information on all real property holdings, is not always timely or complete, a shortcoming that limits the value to officials as a source of information for decision making. Furthermore, although DOE's policy requires that excess real properties appropriate for transfer for economic development purposes be identified and disposed of, it does not identify what entity is responsible for these tasks or when it should identify such properties. As a result, almost none of the officials GAO interviewed at headquarters and at the site-level was proactively or systematically identifying or disposing of these properties. Consequently, DOE may be forgoing opportunities to reduce its overall footprint and achieve efficiencies in the disposal process.

DOE officials at headquarters and the selected sites as well as stakeholders—representatives of CROs and local governments—identified several challenges to disposing of EM properties for reuse, including:

  • Facilities' characteristics, such as unique construction for a specific purpose, can limit reuse potential.
  • Facilities may require significant renovation prior to reuse due to their age and condition.
  • Properties located within the boundaries of secure sites may pose security concerns, making selling or leasing properties difficult.
  • Property disposal processes are lengthy and may limit reuse.

EM and DOE have taken some actions, such as instituting more flexible cleanup processes, to accelerate D&D and to develop strategies to improve the property disposal process. In addition, at one site, EM transferred properties by sale to the CRO and reported using the cost savings to direct additional funds to D&D, a step that in turn, accelerated the cleanup of the remaining facilities. DOE also established a task force in 2011 that provided sites an opportunity to share information about ways to improve property disposal processes and timelines.

Why GAO Did This Study

Disposing of properties that are excess to DOE's current and future needs is complicated because many are contaminated as a result of their use supporting nuclear weapons development and nuclear energy research. As part of this disposal, DOE's EM oversees the environmental cleanup and for facilities, their D&D. GAO was asked to examine DOE's management of the disposal of these types of properties.

This report (1) describes the facilities for which EM completed D&D from 2003 through 2013, (2) assesses DOE's management of the disposal of EM properties, and (3) identifies challenges DOE faced in disposing of these properties and actions taken to address those challenges. GAO analyzed DOE data, reviewed relevant policies and guidance on real property management, and interviewed DOE officials at headquarters and at seven DOE sites selected to represent a variety of sizes, locations, and experiences with property disposal. GAO also interviewed stakeholders from CROs and local governments.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DOE (1) take steps to ensure its data systems provide timely and complete data that support sound decision making and (2) develop and document an approach to property transfer—including roles and responsibilities—consistent with DOE's policy to identify and transfer properties for economic development purposes. DOE concurred with GAO's recommendations and identified steps it plans to take to implement them.

For more information, contact David J. Wise at (202) 512-2834 or wised@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fiscal year 2012, the Department of Energy (DOE) reported that it held approximately 1,000 excess facilities totaling 13.7 million square feet. Disposing of these properties is complicated because many are contaminated as a result of their use supporting nuclear weapons development and nuclear energy research. In 2015, GAO reported that the DOE's ability to manage its decentralized property-disposal process was impeded by data limitations and an unclear policy. DOE and the Office of Environmental Management maintained the Facilities Information Management System (FIMS) and Integrated Planning, Accountability, and Budgeting System, respectively, which contained information on facilities that are undergoing or have completed deactivation and decommissioning (D&D). However, neither system collected all the information DOE officials would need to effectively manage this subgroup of its real property portfolio, such as when D&D of a facility started or was completed. In addition, FIMS data, which serves as DOE's source of information on all real property holdings, was not always timely or complete, a shortcoming that limits the value to officials as a source of information for decision making. In particular, while FIMS documents a facility's status (e.g., whether it is operating, shutdown, etc.), the status codes overlap and do not correspond directly with the steps in the D&D process, such as whether the facility is undergoing deactivation or decommissioning. Furthermore, in the FIMS data GAO reviewed for facilities for which D&D was completed, most status codes were outdated. In those cases, decision makers using FIMS would not have accurate, reliable, or timely information about the status of those facilities. Finally, the information that FIMS should maintain was not always recorded resulting in incomplete information about real property holdings that impeded DOE's ability to manage its portfolio at a site and agency-wide level. Therefore, GAO recommended that DOE should take steps to ensure that its real property data systems provide timely and complete data on the status and major milestones of facilities undergoing D&D at a level of detail that supports sound decision making. In 2017, GAO confirmed that DOE released an update to FIMS that included changes to the status codes and definitions for excess facilities in order to eliminate duplication and overlap among definitions and to provide a clearer picture of the status of facilities and their readiness for disposal. In June 2016, DOE issued a memorandum to FIMS users notifying them of changes made in FIMS release 2.30 to the status codes for facilities, including those undergoing D&D. The memo included a crosswalk between the previous definitions used and the new definitions in order to facilitate more accurate and timely indicators on the status of excess facilities and their readiness for disposal. By eliminating duplication and overlap among the status code definitions, and including a date for when a change in status occurs, FIMS contains clearer information about the operational status of DOE facilities, including excess facilities that may require D&D. As a result, DOE is in a better position to receive up-to-date information on the status of all facilities undergoing D&D and be able to make well-informed decisions about this subgroup of its property holdings.

    Recommendation: To help DOE make more informed decisions regarding its management and disposal of real property held by EM, the Secretary of Energy should take steps to ensure that its real property data systems provide timely and complete data on the status and major milestones of facilities undergoing D&D at a level of detail that supports sound decision making.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fiscal year 2012, the Department of Energy (DOE) reported that it held approximately 1,000 excess facilities totaling 13.7 million square feet. Disposing of these properties is complicated because many are contaminated as a result of their use supporting nuclear weapons development and nuclear energy research. In 2015, GAO reported that DOE had a decentralized approach for managing its real property assets. Under this decentralized process, DOE developed a common approach for sites to manage assets agency-wide by issuing an order entitled, Real Property Asset Management, ("the Order"), as well as a series of related guides and policy documents. The Order also stated that excess real properties that are appropriate for economic development transfer must be identified and disposed of; however, the policy was unclear as it did not identify what entity is responsible for these tasks or when it should identify such properties. As a result, almost none of the officials GAO interviewed at headquarters and at the site-level was proactively or systematically identifying or disposing of these properties. Consequently, DOE did not have a consolidated inventory of properties that might be appropriate for this type of disposal. By not taking a proactive approach to identifying and transferring property that was suitable for economic development purposes, DOE may have forgone opportunities to reduce its overall footprint and achieve efficiencies in the disposal process. Therefore, GAO recommended that DOE should develop and document an approach to property transfer consistent with DOE's policy to identify and transfer properties appropriate for economic development, including clearly defining who is responsible for identifying those properties, when they should be identified, and how. In 2017, GAO confirmed that DOE developed and issued guidance consistent with its policy to annually identify real property that is appropriate for transfer for economic development purposes by September 30 of each year. The guidance also included instructions on how to make information about these properties available to interested parties. In March 2015, DOE distributed this guidance to DOE elements at eligible facilities via memoranda. In September 2015 and August 2016, DOE sent reminders to realty specialists of the guidance. By issuing the guidance, DOE has established a process that will allow it to more proactively identify properties available for disposal via transfer and reduce DOE's overall property holdings as well as assist economic development in selected areas.

    Recommendation: To help DOE make more informed decisions regarding its management and disposal of real property held by EM, the Secretary of Energy should develop and document an approach to property transfer consistent with DOE's policy to identify and transfer properties appropriate for economic development, including clearly defining who is responsible for identifying those properties, when they should be identified, and how.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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