"My first week on the job," says the Department of Ecology's new director, Maia Bellon, "we got the news that one of [Hanford's] single-shelled tanks was leaking."
A rather rough introduction for Bellon, who previously managed Ecology's water resources program. A 1991 Evergreen State College graduate, she joined Ecology as deputy manager of water resources in 2010. Before that Bellon had spent 15 years as an assistant attorney general advising and negotiating on Ecology’s behalf in a variety of areas, including air quality, toxic cleanup and water. (She also spent a year as a special assistant to Evergreen's president for civil rights and legal affairs.)
A lot of people seemed pleased by the choice. Joel Connelly complained in seattlepi.com that "Inslee ran during the fall campaign with a promise to make 'disruptive change,' and repeated that promise after his inauguration as governor. . . . [H]owever, he has filled cabinet jobs largely out of the existing state bureaucracy, or with people who have worked or served previously in the state capital." One person who has worked with Bellon at Ecology says, though, that her personal warmth and energy make her stand out from the gray landscape of bureaucracy.
Bellon will need every ounce of both as she negotiates the challenges facing her department. Besides Hanford’s leaking radioactive waste, Ecology will be contending with the prospect of coal trains destined for Cherry Point or Longview; conflicts over water and pressure for water storage in the Yakima and Columbia basins; and a laundry list of unresolved problems in Puget Sound. And Bellon's department will have to do all that in the face of budgets that look tight as far as the eye can see.
Shortly after Governor Jay Inslee announced her appointment, he announced that one of Hanford's old single-walled waste storage tanks — T-111 — was leaking radioactive sludge. (The governor has a "zero tolerance" policy toward Hanford leaks.) A week later, at least five more of the 149 single-shelled tanks turned out to be oozing radioactive sludge into the environment. Conceivably, they weren't the only ones.
In the 1980s, Ecology, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency negotiated the Tri Party Agreement under which the feds have moved virtually all the pumpable liquid out of the tanks. The feds are also building the big waste treatment plant at Hanford that will encase the most radioactive wastes in glass. The pumping was an important milestone, but the T-111 tank, for example, still holds 447,000 gallons of radioactive sludge.
The vitrification plant obviously has had its own problems. There have been allegations of a lax safety culture, questions about whether the plant is up to the job and huge cost overruns. Then there’s the fact that the glass logs the vitrification process may eventually produce were designed for the nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain, which looks like it will never be built.
There's not much Ecology can do about Yucca's demise except to cheer on the state's new Attorney General, who is in federal court trying to force the Energy Department to resurrect it. As for other aspects of Hanford waste disposal, such as negotiating a Plan B for the leaking tanks, "Ecology can get involved," Bellon says. "We have the strong support of the Governor." And Bellon’s experience as a negotiator can't hurt.
She will be handicapped by limited resources. Just go to the Ecology website for a catalog of "Ecology Budget Reductions (2007-2013)." “The budget is very tight,” she concedes. "It does weigh on me." The department is "looking at every area to prioritize our resources."
Bellon’s talent for doing more with less may have been one of the reasons she got the job. In announcing her appointment, the Governor's office noted that Bellon had "led efforts to bring lean management practices to state's water management program." Now she’ll have to replicate that success. Under the circumstances, her knowledge of the Ecology department should help.
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