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NASA MOVE A $140 MILLION BLACK HOLE

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At a recent tribute dinner for Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., President Clinton engaged in some good-natured needling of a politician renowned for his fidelity to the Founding Fathers as well as his two-fisted efforts to bring home the bacon for West Virginia.

Clinton explained how he tried to overcome Byrd's opposition to NASA's space station. "He said he couldn't do that unless I were willing to move the Capitol to West Virginia," quipped Clinton. "I'm still considering it."The joke was not wide of the mark. Byrd has delivered more than $1 billion in federal money to his home state, redeeming a 1989 promise made when he took over the Senate Appropriations Committee. Sometimes that has meant uprooting bureaucracies - such as the FBI's fingerprint lab - and moving them to West Virginia.

Now Byrd and Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., have entered the space age: They have engineered the relocation of a NASA project and its 200 jobs from White Sands, N.M., to the city of Fairmont in Mollohan's district. A draft copy of a "Rapid Action" audit by NASA's inspector general we've obtained shows that the misguided move will waste nearly $140 million of taxpayer money.

The audit - marked "For Official Use" only because it contains "procurement sensitive information" - shows that the move is "inefficient and without technical merit" and that NASA "may be exposed to security risks" because Fairmont isn't equipped to handle the project.

Although Byrd complained during debate over the space station last year that some "things on Earth need a little attention sooner than those things in outer space," Byrd and Mollohan attended the dedication of the Fairmont complex this summer. It was built by West Virginia University with $12.4 million in federal money that Byrd helped to secure. NASA sources say that in order to help justify the construction of the new complex, Byrd and Mollohan successfully lobbied for the data production facility of NASA's Earth Observing System (EOS) to be moved to Fairmont.

"It doesn't make much sense to put it in West Virginia," one NASA official told our associate Ed Henry. "I don't see any justification for it."

John Lawrence of NASA's legislative affairs office simply told us: "You know how the process works." A Byrd spokeswoman had no comment, and Mollohan didn't return our phone calls.

EOS is being developed to observe the Earth from space, collect and process the data, and then distribute the data to scientists in order to study global change. EOS's data production facility was slated to be at White Sands because the raw data is transmitted there anyway. The move to Fairmont will duplicate operations and management personnel.

"Several identical positions are currently intended for operations in Fairmont and White Sands," reads the audit. "These positions can be eliminated with the consolidation (of the two facilities) in White Sands."

But now "massive communication lines" will be needed to send data from White Sands to Fairmont, racking up an extra $20 million in equipment costs alone - including over $16 million for new circuits. In all, the audit estimates that the move will cost taxpayers an extra $39 million from now until the year 2000, and an extra $97 million beyond then.

NASA officials are also concerned because some of the data handled at Fairmont will be classified as "sensitivity level 3," which means the data may affect "safety of life, safety of spacecraft, or major mission failure." The audit notes that while the White Sands complex is located in a secure environment, the Fairmont complex is not.

"Other tenants planned in Fairmont will be involved in activities that require open access to the facility," it warns. "Because of the public nature of the other tenants in Fairmont, NASA's secure environment for the EOS data and mission-critical EOS program could be vulnerable."

The audit also claims there may be insufficient space at Fairmont to house all of the archived data. "Only 2,000 square feet has been allocated for the archive function at Fairmont, whereas 5,000 square feet is currently required to archive" the data, according to the audit.

While most politicians would be defensive, Byrd has been refreshingly honest. As he said during a 1991 debate on a pork-laden transportation bill: "Oh, they say he is trying to get everything he can for West Virginia. I would not be worth my salt if I did not attempt to represent the people of West Virginia. . . . They may call me provincial if they wish, I do not care."