The Energy Department is fighting a move by House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and allies to give a major role in the multibillion-dollar cleanup of nuclear weapons plants to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The move came in language in the 1991 energy and water appropriations bill passed by the House last month that would put the Corps' regional office in Walla Walla, Wash., in Foley's home district, in charge of the environmental cleanup at the Energy Department's Hanford, Wash., nuclear weapons plant.

All sides agree that the decision on who runs the Hanford cleanup will set the pattern for the upcoming cleanups at 17 other nuclear weapons sites over the next 20 years.

Senior Energy Department officials, accusing Foley of putting pork-barrel politics ahead of safety and environmental concerns, are trying to persuade Congress to accept a compromise in which DOE would retain management control but use the Corps of Engineers as a subcontractor for budget analysis and cost estimation.

Capitol Hill sources said last week they expect a compromise to be reached, but in the meantime the dispute has provoked strong feelings and unusually strong words. It has engaged the attention of environmental groups -- who have been critical of the Energy Department's radioactive waste cleanup program but see nothing to be gained by transferring it to an agency with no nuclear expertise -- as well as that of major potential contractors.

"The Corps is into a little empire building," said deputy Energy Secretary W. Henson Moore. "It's a political move on their part, but not a smart move. We think this is too serious to treat as a works program for the Corps of Engineers."

Moore said that "Foley's concern is the Corps' big district office in Walla Walla . . . . We'd like to accommodate the speaker, but the solution goes way beyond the bounds of what ought to happen. We are very unhappy and upset."

Accounts vary about whether the Corps of Engineers solicited the transfer and about Foley's role in it. One senior Energy Department official said representatives of the Corps told him they had hired a consultant to draft the transfer language contained in the appropriations report. The Corps has said little in public. "If they tell us to do the work, we'll do it. That's about all I can say," a spokesman said.

Foley's allies include most of the Washington state delegation and dozens of members in whose districts the Corps is already at work.

"What really happened is that the Energy Department was asleep at the switch and Foley came up and hit them with a 2-by-4," said a Senate staff member monitoring the dispute. "The DOE staff person assigned to take care of this didn't, and it came up and bit them on the rear."

But Rep. Tom Bevill (D-Ala.), chairman of the House Appropriations Energy and Water subcommittee that ordered the transfer, said Foley wasn't primarily responsible. "The speaker never talked to me about this," he said. "The whole {Washington state} delegation has been interested in the Walla Walla office being maintained."

Bevill said that "based on the testimony of the Corps of Engineers" about its expertise in hazardous waste cleanup, "I wanted the Corps used in the nuclear waste cleanup."

A source close to Foley said the speaker met several months ago with Energy Secretary James D. Watkins to ask that the Corps receive some work in the Hanford cleanup but did not necessarily seek a transfer of the entire program.

The Hanford cleanup is the biggest piece of an immense nationwide effort by the Energy Department to dispose of 40 years worth of radioactive and toxic wastes at its factories that process plutonium and manufacture nuclear weapons. The department also plans to restore the environment where the wastes have leaked.

The issue of control has provoked a strong lobbying effort behind the scenes by large engineering firms who reportedly fear losing a lucrative relationship with the DOE.

"Current estimates of the total cleanup costs for the DOE sites range from $60 billion to $200 billion over the next 20 to 50 years," according to the energy and water subcommittee report.

At an appropriations markup June 20, Bevill's subcommittee voted to provide $2.7 billion, or $353 million more than the Energy Department sought, for cleanup operations in fiscal 1991, which starts Oct. 1.

In its accompanying report, later approved by the House, the subcommittee said that "the Secretary of Energy is directed to use the engineering services of the Secretary of the Army, Corps of Engineers, Walla Walla district, to manage and carry out" the Hanford cleanup. "The committee directs DOE to assign the Corps full management responsibilities, rather than individual tasks . . . the committee will be evaluating whether the Army's responsibility should be expanded to include the cleanup of the remaining DOE sites" in other states.

According to Moore and other officials, the Energy Department had been negotiating with the Corps of Engineers for months in an effort to reach a "memorandum of understanding" over the Corps' role. In effect, it would have engaged the Corps as a contractor to DOE responsible for long-range cost estimation and budget management at Hanford but not for directing the actual waste cleanup.

But the negotiations apparently were not going fast enough to assure Washington state legislators that the Corps would be guaranteed a major role.

Hanford is in the district of Rep. Sid Morrison (R-Wash.), who favors a more limited role for the Corps, according to his spokesman Rick Olson. However, Olson conceded the appropriations language "was designed to get DOE's attention," and that "DOE had every opportunity to come up with an agreement that would have precluded this language."

According to James E. Beard, nuclear weapons project director for Friends of the Earth and a watchdog of the cleanup program, "This was something Foley wanted. But DOE resisted the negotiations and blocked the agreement for six months. They should not have dawdled. Finally, Foley said okay, if you won't go along, I'll hit you with a big stick. It's a good lesson for the Energy Department."

Like other environmentalists, Beard said his displeasure with the Energy Department did not make him especially enthusiastic about the Corps of Engineers, long a target of criticism on environmental issues. "My gut feeling is that it doesn't make sense for the Corps to be in charge of the cleanup. They fall short on a lot of things too. But I do think a study of the budget priorities is not a bad idea."

Gerald M. Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest, a Seattle-based group that monitors Hanford, said, "Foley floated an idea to get the Corps involved. Everyone in this state says it just got out of control."