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Not with a bang but with a high-pitched whimper. The slow death of the federal helium program

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On Oct. 1, 2013 the federal government became the victim of a gridlocked Congress and began to shut down. Hundreds of thousands of workers were furloughed without notice while many more kept working – unsure of when they would be paid.

Just one day later the 50 or so employees at the Bureau of Land Management’s Cliffside Gas Field – the last remaining federal helium plant – breathed a sigh of relief. The facility had only been allowed to operate until Oct. 7, but Congress had managed to finalize legislation that would keep the facility open for more than six years.

The Bureau of Land Management's remaining helium facility.

The Bureau of Land Management’s remaining helium facility.

President Obama signed the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 into law on Oct. 2. The shutdown wouldn’t be over until Oct. 16, nearly two weeks later. The helium program continued.

The Cliffside facility is one of the last remnants of the Federal Helium Program, which purchased helium-rich natural gas from private companies and stored them in the porous rock about 12 miles northwest of Amarillo, Texas and processed it through nearly half-a-dozen facilities.

The slow decline of the program belied its importance to national defense and scientific research. The government first began storing helium there in 1925 when airships were all the rage. But helium’s ability to super cool materials made it perfect for high-tech research and machinery (think MRI machines) and helped in critical missions within NASA and other agencies.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the Universe (right after hydrogen) but it is incredibly hard to pull the gas from the air. The most common way to obtain helium is as a byproduct from natural gas drilling.

By 1960 the government had purchased about 34 billion cubic feet of helium rich natural gas from drillers and had stored it in what helium experts called “the dome” next to the Cliffside facility and had built about 420 miles of underground pipeline stretching from Texas to Kansas. Along the way were private helium refiners that use the Cliffside reserves to further purify the gas and then sell it.

In 1996 Congress passed a bill that would gradually phase out the reserve. That process was sped up by the Helium Privitzation Act of 1996 which set aggressive targets for the selling off of stored helium.

But the legislation passed on Oct. 2 did not reinvigorate a federal program in decline or breath into it new life. It merely stamped an official date on its death certificate.

There are now only about 10 billion cubic feet of helium left in Cliffside’s reserves, and the Bureau of Land Management projects it will sell but 3 billion by the time its new authorization expires on Sept. 30, 2021 and the privatization of helium storage will be complete.

By then the BLM will have made arrangements to sell all of the equipment, the facility and even the underground pipeline to a private company or companies, according to Robert Jolley, the Amarillo field office manager for BLM. He said the facility supplies about 32 percent of the world’s helium supply and around 42 percent of helium within the United States. But that won’t last much longer.

“Our supplies are dwindling and we are on the last few years of our capability, so those percentages are dropping,” he said.

But Jolley is grateful the facility has been given time to close, instead of being shut down immediately last year. The work would have stopped in its tracks and he is not sure what would have happened afterwards.

“We were sweating being laid off,” he said.

Once the equipment is under contract and the facility and its pipeline are handed over to a private company, what happens then? Jolly said the selling process will begin sometime in 2019 but will hopefully include some provisions that it will remain in BLM hands up until the last day of authorization.

“We will try to operate up until the very end if possible,” he said.

When is a wedding plan so awesome the Coast Guard gets involved?

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FireworksYou know your wedding day will be memorable when it triggers a series of environmental reviews and a proposed rule from the federal government.

That is definitely the case for a lucky person named “Ellie,’ whose planned wedding fireworks display on June 27 about 1.5 miles into the Long Island Sound near Greenwich, Conn., had to be approved by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Because the fireworks will be launched from a barge in navigable waterways, the Coast Guard had to perform an environmental impact review and formally establish a temporary safety zone.

This temporary rule proposes to establish a safety zone for the Ellie’s Wedding fireworks display. This proposed regulated area includes all waters of Long Island Sound within a 600 foot radius of the fireworks barge located approximate 1.5 miles south of Greenwich Point Park in Greenwich, CT,” according to the proposed rule.

Of course, since it’s a proposed rule, you can still comment officially on it until May 15. I will be sending them my best wishes for a long-lasting relationship.

All the details and procedures were published on Regulations.gov as part of the rulemaking process, but as far as wedding announcements go, its very formal.

So congratulations Ellie on your wedding day. I hear your fireworks are going to be great.

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How many people get arrested at Burning Man? The answer will surprise you.

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A woman dances with fire during the final day of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada early 03 September 2000. The festival is a spontaneous encounter of artists, performers and spectators, where the audience is expected to interact and collaborate during the week long event.  AFP PHOTO (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) Hector MATA

A woman dances with fire during the final day of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada early 03 September 2000. The festival is a spontaneous encounter of artists, performers and spectators, where the audience is expected to interact and collaborate during the week long event. AFP PHOTO (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) Hector MATA

Every year at the end of August nearly 70,000 people descend on Black Rock Desert in Pershing County, Nevada to take part in the celebration of radical self expression known as Burning Man.

And for many people it’s synonymous with drug use and burning a giant wooden man in the middle of the desert. But according to the Bureau of Land Management — which has jurisdiction over government land and the Burning Man festival grounds in particular — the number of people cited or arrested is quite low for its size and duration.

In 2013 only 6 people out of 69,613 were arrested and 433 more were cited by law enforcement, according to statistics from BLM provided to the Government Attic. (Note: Government attic is a great resource for FOIAs and government info alike.) That covers the five days leading up to Burning Man, the event itself and five days afterward.

The size of the gathering would make it the 5th largest city in Nevada and in comparison crime at Burning is pretty low, according to Gene Seidlitz, manager for the Winnemucca district of the BLM.

Year Burning Man Pop. BLM officers Drug citations Total citations Arrests
2010 51,515 51 158 293 9
2011 53,735 51 218 376 8
2012 52,385 70 253 365 14
2013 69,613 70 309 433 6

He said while in its early days there were deaths and more arrests the event has evolved into a well-organized festival complete with proper permits and safety guidelines — especially for the fire events.

“Although there are arrests and injuries and in the past deaths I think this is a very safe event and managed well with good oversight by the BLM,” Seidlitz said.

The key to keeping the event organized and safe is the extensive communication between event organizers and the BLM, according to Eric Boik, state chief ranger for the BLM for Utah, which oversees the law enforcement activities of the event.

“It’s because we all get to the table and communicate frequently and the planning for this starts for 2014 in December so we are already working hot and heavy,” Boik said.

He added the event encourages self-reliance and all the festival participants clean up everything they bring with them as part of a “leave no trace” culture.

“Everything is cleaned up as if the event never occurred,” he said.

Burning Man continues to grow — from a few hundred people 30 years ago to 51,515 in 2010 and up to 69,613 in 2013. The 2014 festival has a permit for 70,000 people and that is probably the maximum the event can host, according to the BLM.

A man dances near a fire at Black Rock City's Burning Man festival in Nevada 05 September 1999. Founded in 1986 by a group of fine artists, filmmakers and photographers, the annual event encourages a collaborative response from its audience and a collaboration between artists. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Hector MATA

A man dances near a fire at Black Rock City’s Burning Man festival in Nevada 05 September 1999. Founded in 1986 by a group of fine artists, filmmakers and photographers, the annual event encourages a collaborative response from its audience and a collaboration between artists. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Hector MATA

The agency worked on an environmental impact statement that put the maximum number of festival-goers — no including law enforcement or festival organizers — at 70,000, according to Seidlitz.

As for the wooden man that is burned every year?

“It’s quite a site,” Seidlitz said.

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Man at heart of $500 million contracting scandal arrested, charged with murder

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Braulio Castillo first became famous when he was the subject of a House investigation into how he parlayed a 30-year-old prep school ankle injury into getting $500 million in contracts in the form of a special service-disabled veteran status for his company Signet Computers.

He suffered the injury while attending the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School in 1984 but played football the next year at the University of San Diego. In 2012 he filed a claim with the Veterans Affairs office to get the special status as a service-disable veteran.

His special status helped get his company Signet Computers (renamed Strong Castle in 2013) contracts worth up to $500 million but also drew the scrutiny of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

But on April 1 the 43-year-old Castillo was arrested by the Loudon County Sheriff’s office and is being charged with the murder of his estranged wife. The charge is first-degree murder.

The victim, Michelle G. Castillo, was found dead in her home on March 20th by police checking on her wellbeing.

“During the investigation the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office executed multiple search warrants at two locations and conducted door-to-door canvasses throughout the area,” according to the Loudon County Sheriff’s office.

Once approved, the disability enabled Castillo’s company access to government set-asides through VA’s Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business program.

Castillo told a VA examiner weighing the company’s application for entry into the special set-aside program about the “crosses I bear due to my service to our great country,” according to the House report.

He later told congressional investigators that his injury was debilitating over the years and that he’d had three foot fusions. Had Castillo completed his year at the preparatory school without injury, he wouldn’t have been considered a veteran, but a VA official told House investigators that cadets injured at school become veterans due to service-connected disability, the report said.

The House report also found Castillo’s newly purchased company had no experience with the IRS, but it still won lucrative information technology contracts worth up to $500 million in part because of its status as a HUBZone contractor and Castillo’s relationship with a top IRS contracting official.

Under Small Business Administration rules, a HUBZone, or Historically Underutilized Business Zone, designation gives contractors an edge in competing for federal work if they’re based in certain economically distressed areas.

Interior CIO steps down

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Sylvia Burns took over the reins Monday as Interior Department’s acting chief information officer, following Bernie Mazer’s decision to step down as CIO and retire this summer.

Mazer’s last day as CIO was March 28, but “the department has asked Bernie to stay on for several months to assist in the selection of a successor, in addition to advising on several time-sensitive and high priority projects,” Andrew Jackson, Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for technology, information and business services, said in an email to employees. The department could not confirm Mazer’s new title.

Federal News Radio first reported Mazer’s departure and said  he will be retiring in July. Burns will serve as acting CIO until a permanent replacement is chosen.

In his email, Jackson highlighted several of Mazer’s accomplishments:

- Spearheaded DOI’s successful migration of widely-dispersed employees from 14 different legacy email systems to Google Apps for Government.

- Led the vision, development, and release of the $10 billion, 10-year DOI Foundation Cloud Hosting Services (FCHS) contract.

- Guided the implementation of DOI’s cloud-based Email Enterprise Records & Document Management System (eERDMS), enabling efficient big data management of documents and records. It’s the largest records and information management program in the federal government.

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HP, Oracle among companies in FedRAMP pipeline

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Century Link, HP and CA Technologies are among the companies with cloud solutions awaiting final approval under a governmentwide security program.
Specifically, these companies are working to obtain a  Joint Authorization Board Provisional Authorization for a specific cloud offering. That’s basically a seal of approval from an interagency board of chief information officers at the General Services Administration, Homeland Security and Defense departments, acknowledging that companies have met minimum federal standards for securing cloud solutions.
See a complete list of companies awaiting JAB approval here.
As required by the Federal Risk and Authorization program (FedRAMP), the cloud vendors first hired an independent assessment organization to review and validate that they implemented the security standards.
GSA is working with IT networking group Meritalk to make the FedRAMP process more transparent by providing data on the companies awaiting approval and the performance of independent assessment organizations.

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10 ways to tell you have been a federal employee too long

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So lets have a little bit of fun today. It seems that every group, school and town is getting a list, so lets add federal employees to those groups! Feel free to add your own at the bottom of the blog.

1. When people shout “high five!” and your first thought is “over my dead body.

2. Jan. 1 doesn’t even hold a candle to Oct. 1. Its the cleanest slate you can imagine.

3. You give your children 180 days to respond to a new rule you are proposing. Corollary: You refer to your family as “stakeholders.”

4. You groan audibly when anyone starts an argument with the phrase “The government is like a household…”

5. Your position was eliminated months ago but you are still working at the office.

6. They don’t make service pins in denominations high enough to represent your years of service.

7. You remember the first push for more telework, and the second, and the third and the fourth …

8. Every year you write a Sammie speech you never get a chance to read.

9. You actually used to know a GS-3.

10. You brag about how many agencies you are older than. Although every fed gets one…

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Guy Facebooks himself ‘cannonballing’ onto manatee, faces one year in jail

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On March 7 22-year-old Taylor Blake Martin and Seth Andrew Stephenson pleaded guilty in court to harassing an endangered species by luring an adult manatee and its calf to a dock and then “cannonballing” on top of them.

Martin and Stephenson then posted a video of the incident on Facebook, which brought it to the attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Martin and Stephenson face a year in prison and a maximum $50,000 fine.

After the video was posted on Facebook, several people commented on it.  In response to a post that expressed displeasure with Martin’s actions, Martin responded, “hahaha…in my debue [sic] as tayla the manatee slaya…im f—- ready to cannonball on every manatee living yewwww.”

The video shows Stephenson luring the manatees to the dock with a hose before Martin jumped on the adult manatee and tried to ride it.

“This case demonstrates our resolve to address the illegal harassment of Manatees, as well as the enforcement of speed zones, and other more serious forms of take which result in the death or injury of Florida’s Endangered Manatees,” said Special Agent in Charge Luis Santiago, Southeast Region, Office of Law Enforcement, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

D.C.-area federal offices open Wednesday

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As the Washington, D.C. area gets another dusting of snow this morning, federal offices in the region will be open, but employees have the option of unscheduled leave or telework, the Office of Personnel Management said in web posting. You can read the announcement here.

Report shows where CFC pledges go

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By all accounts, pledges to the 2013 Combined Federal Campaign are going to be down by tens of millions of dollars in comparison with the 2012 CFC. This is, of course, money that mostly goes to charities. But which charities benefit from federal employee giving (and could thus see a falloff in contributions)?

The Office of Personnel Management does not collect that information. Instead, the Workplace Giving Alliance, a Massachusetts-based coalition of CFC federations, decided to do the job on its own, compiling pledge information for the last three years from most local campaigns and then extrapolating to fill in the gaps.

In a report released a few months ago, here’s what the group found: Among national and international charities, the biggest CFC beneficiary in the 2012 season was the American Red Cross, which received more than $7 million in pledges. Runner-up was St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which got about $6.7 million, following by the Wounded Warrior Project, with about $5 million. In general, health, religious, veterans, education and animal-related charities did well; you can read the full report here.

 

 

 

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