DOE’s returning home to Oak Ridge Federal Building

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Kelvin Cash, left, and Corey DeVaughn from Pioneer Builders Inc., inspect blueprints of the Federal Building’s reconfigured space as they prepare for furniture to be moved into Department of Energy offices.  (DOE photo/Lynn Freeny)

IMG_0916After 14 months in temporary quarters, the U.S. Department of Energy is returning to its Oak Ridge home.

A few dozen DOE employees last week began moving back to the Joe L. Evins Federal Building, getting the all-clear after a yearlong asbestos cleanup project. By the end of September, about 450 federal and contractor workers will be working in the agency’s long-standing field office in the Atomic City.

For many of the government employees, there was one sentiment: it’s about time.

“It has been a hassle,” John Shewairy, DOE’s assistant manager for administration, said during a tour of the five-story, 154,000-square foot building. “A lot of folks have been in this building for 30 years. This is their home.”

They were forced to leave in a rush in June 2012 after flaking asbestos was found in areas connected to the building’s heating and air-conditioning system. For the first few days after the discovery, agency’s Oak Ridge leadership team worked out of makeshift offices to keep things running while more space — including leased offices just down the street — was acquired for the extended cleanup period.

The temporary arrangements weren’t ideal, Shewairy noted. In some cases, more than one employee had to share a cubicle, he said. But he praised the spirit and attitude of the workforce.

“We have been exceptionally pleased and fortunate that folks have understood the situation we’re in and worked together,” the federal official said. “There has been absolutely no complaining. It has taken a little longer than what people would think. But safety is the most important thing … We were dealing with a very serious situation with asbestos and we were not coming back into this building until everything that needed to be addressed was addressed.”

According to Scott McGill, DOE’s facilities manager in Oak Ridge, the Federal Building is as clean as it’s been in years. “Every dust bunny (is gone),” he said.

The U.S. General Services Administration, which owns the building, took responsibility for the $2.4 million cleanup, and Shewairy said the GSA made things as easy as possible for DOE. The Department of Energy actually saved money during cleanup by not having to pay rent on the Federal Building and that money — more than $1.5 million — was used to remodel the building for new uses and about 100 additional employees.

DOE spokesman Ben Williams said the telecommunications system in the Federal Building was upgraded during the interim.

The agency’s environmental management team, which had been located in the DOE-owned 2714 Complex a few hundred yards away, will now move into the Federal Building. That will free up space at 2714 for other DOE employees, including the Office of Inspector General staff. That, in turn, will allow DOE get out of leased space elsewhere in Oak Ridge and save about $110,000 a month.

GSA spokeswoman Tina Jaegerman said the cleanup project was a success.

“One of GSA’s key priorities is to provide safe facilities for federal agencies and for the American people,” she said in an email response to question. “The asbestos abatement at the Oak Ridge Federal Building is an example of us doing just that. In June 2012, when the asbestos was identified, GSA responded promptly making the decision to engage in a full and safe abatement to eliminate any concerns to our tenants and stakeholders.”

Shewairy said the plans to consolidate DOE workers at the Federal Building were underway even before the asbestos was found during a June 2012 inspection. The effort was part of the Obama administration’s mandate for federal agencies to reduce the number of commercial leases where possible as a cost-cutting measure.

After the Inspector General’s staff and other employees are moved to the 2714 Complex by the end of November, DOE’s Oak Ridge office will have only one commercial lease, Shewairy said. That is a lease that DOE’s shares for a Joint Information Center in Powell, which the agency would use for communications during emergencies.

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.