By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 29, 2007
The National Defense Center for Environmental Excellence opened its doors in 1991 with a $5 million earmark from a powerful lawmaker. Operating in Johnstown, Pa., the privately run center has received at least $671 million worth of federal contracts and earmarks since then to research and develop pollution-abatement technology and other systems for the Defense Department.
The center's researchers have examined scores of software systems and other gear, including groundwater monitoring equipment, gun cleaners and ultrasonic devices, according to its managers. They said the center had delivered nearly 500 technology products and tools to protect the environment, improve safety and cut Pentagon costs.
But a months-long examination by The Washington Post, including a review of documents and interviews with Pentagon officials, found that little of the center's work has been widely used or deployed by the Defense Department.
Only nine systems developed by the center since 2001 have been put into use at more than one installation, one standard auditors use for measuring the success of technology transfer, Army officials said. That includes such equipment as compost-monitoring technology, bullet-trap technology and hand-held computers for collecting information in the field about unexploded ordnance. Just one system made the leap from the center's labs to multiple locations in the 1990s, Pentagon auditors found.
Army officials responsible for overseeing the center, known as the NDCEE, acknowledged the shortcomings. In interviews and statements, officials said they are working hard to do a better job to identify Defense Department needs and translate the center's research into action.
"Merely showing that a technology works and is cost-effective, and placing the results in a report has not been sufficient," an Army statement said.
The environmental program illustrates the gaps in oversight that have often accompanied the government's surging use of private contractors. It also shows how politically connected programs can thrive over many years in the face of questions about performance and cost.
A key congressional supporter of the center is Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee. Murtha arranged the center's original $5 million budget and used his sway to place it in his district.
Murtha also helped start Concurrent Technologies, the tax-exempt charity that manages the center. Established in an old high school in 1988, Concurrent has grown into a contracting powerhouse. Its annual revenue is now nearly $250 million, most of it from an eclectic array of Defense Department contracts.
Investigations by The Post this year have shown that in the last four years Concurrent has received $226 million in congressionally directed funding, known as earmarks, from Murtha and other lawmakers, including those who represent districts where Concurrent has opened offices.
Murtha declined through a spokesman to comment for this article.
Concurrent's relationship with the Pentagon has come under scrutiny by lawmakers and the Pentagon's inspector general since the publication of articles by The Post. The most recent inquiry began this month by Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, who wants to know why Concurrent is a tax-exempt charity.
"It's fair to ask whether this company is serving a legitimate charitable purpose, and whether the taxpayers are getting a fair return on their investment," Grassley said in a statement.
The Post review also found that lawmakers and Pentagon officials continued allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to the center in recent years, despite publicly available reports from auditors and others raising questions about its effectiveness.
Among the problems cited: Managers of the center sometimes duplicated the work of private industry, and the Defense Department was not doing enough to oversee the program or promote its research. A National Research Council committee convened to examine the center's approach to transferring technology said in a 2002 report that "this model has not been successfully demonstrated."
One year later, the Army awarded Concurrent a five-year contract worth up to $350 million to continue running the center.
Concurrent spokeswoman Mary Bevan said she had no comment about the center and referred a reporter to the Army. Bevan defended Concurrent's non-profit status, saying "we perform scientific research and development."
"We don't claim to be a charity," she said. "We're not the United Way."
Documents filed by Concurrent with the Internal Revenue Service show it is registered as a tax-exempt charitable organization.
"Something is very wrong here. Why is the government pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a contractor whose work it isn't using?" said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group in the District that has examined defense spending over the years.
The NDCEE came about as a result of federal environmental legislation in 1990 that mandated wide-ranging pollution prevention efforts by the government.
In response, the Defense Department created pollution prevention programs and pledged to cut hazardous waste by half by the end of the 1990s. The center was to be a key player in those efforts.
With Murtha leading the way, Congress set aside the $5 million to start the center as a subsidiary of the nonprofit organization that would become Concurrent Technologies. The center set out to be "a national resource" for demonstrating and transferring environmental technologies to the Defense Department, other government agencies and industry, company documents show.
The center has no employees of its own, Army officials said. It is run by Concurrent, with oversight provided by at least two Army program officials. It does work with the Army, Air Force, Navy, federal and state agencies, universities and private companies, according to company documents. Booz Allen Hamilton, Parsons and Battelle Memorial Institute are members of its "contracting team," company documents show.
In the first 12 years after the center was formed, Concurrent did not have to compete for contracts. It received at least three sole-source contracts, one of them worth $150 million.
The money added up -- and so did questions about the center.
Operating under Army oversight, the program received as much as $271 million in congressional appropriations and contract work from fiscal 1990 to fiscal 2000, according to Pentagon auditors.
Many technologies studied or developed by the center were demonstrated at the Johnstown facility. In some cases, the center made presentations at Defense facilities or promoted the technologies in reports or on the Web.
One technology that was demonstrated and transferred was an ultra high-pressure water jet system for cleaning aircraft engines, according to a 2001 report by the Pentagon inspector general's office. Auditors said the technology had the potential to save $8.7 million over 15 years. Pentagon auditors found that most military people working with the center were satisfied with its services.
But that apparent enthusiasm didn't prompt them to embrace the center's work very often.
Of the five dozen technologies demonstrated by the center in the 1990s, only 20 were put into use at Defense facilities, auditors said. Just one was used at multiple locations, auditors said.
The reasons for the failure included a lack of funding by the Defense Department, and the fact that in more than half the cases the technologies did not save money as promised. The inspector general's report said technologies were "not being effectively disseminated to many potential DoD customers."
Questions about the center's effectiveness prompted the Defense Department to ask the National Research Council to identify major barriers and remedies to the transfer of pollution-prevention technologies. The council's 2002 report took aim at the center's approach, saying it needed to do a better job reaching out to the Defense Department and "selecting and completing relevant projects with significant and quantifiable impacts."
Despite the criticism, spending on the center continued. It received at least $9.5 million in 2002 and $11.3 million in 2003, according to the Army. In 2003, Concurrent won its first competitive award to run the center. The contract was worth up to $350 million over five years and called on its researchers to find solutions for hazardous waste, groundwater pollution, nuclear waste, corrosion prevention and other problems, according to the statement of work. It was Concurrent's largest contract ever, contracting documents show.
Army officials defended the contract award, saying it was competitively bid and an important step in making the operation more effective.
"The all important first step in revitalizing the role of the NDCEE was to issue the new contract via a competitive process," the Army said in a statement. "Further, significant efforts were made to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of NDCEE."
The center has received $130 million under that contract, Army officials said. One success cited by Army officials is a system for helping Defense Department installations enter a federal workplace health and safety program. The center has also developed a plan for helping a Defense Department ammunition plant reduce contamination from the process of making explosives.
Tad Davis, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for the environment, safety and occupational health, declined to discuss the center's activity before he took on his job in October 2005. But he said the Army is doing a better job getting the center to focus on research that is germane to the Army and Defense Department.
"There's a certain amount of marketing that has to take place," Davis said. "It's not as easy as driving up to someone's installation and knocking on the door."
Davis said he sees the center's issues not as problems, but as challenges that can be overcome. "It's going to require effort," he said. "I think it's doable."