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Maia Bellon takes the reins at Ecology

The new director of the state's Ecology Department will be juggling big challenges on a tight budget. Can her personal charm and collaborative style help resolve Hanford leaks, coal trains and water rights?

Ecology Director Maia Bellon

Ecology Director Maia Bellon Washington Department of Ecology

"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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Comments:

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 9:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Interesting, your placement of the "one Hanford tank is leaking" quote near the beginning of this piece, and the reality, that at least six tanks are leaking, buried deep in the later paragraphs. Why not put that vitally important info, which has been under-reported by WA media in general, right behind the Maia quote?

elemental

Posted Fri, Mar 1, 12:22 a.m. Inappropriate

It's very disappointing to see Inslee wrap up the Yakima plan in the climate change mantle. Perhaps one could take him a little more seriously if the Plan included anything more than the barest lip-service to water conservation. But it doesn't.

The reality of Yakima agribusiness is water waste on a colossal scale. And why should they take any care about using water wisely when they get it for just about nothing, courtesy of the taxpayers? Giant overhead sprinklers spray water about like it's free, which it practically is. And much of whatever doesn't blow away goes to grow low value crops like hay.

The fish passage parts of the Yakima Plan are a sad joke. Supposedly, fish ladders will be built to allow sockeye salmon access into agricultural reservoirs with rapidly fluctuating water levels. Fish ladders seldom work well even under the best circumstances. No one has ever built one that works in these kind of reservoirs. It's pure wishful thinking.

And, let's not forget that there won't be enough water in the Yakima River for the fish to even get anywhere near to these reservoirs. It's almost all withdrawn for agriculture. So maybe it doesn't really matter. At least it guarantees years of work for a few fish ladder designers.

The Yakima Plan is a ruinously costly way to (maybe) deliver a little more water to agribusiness operations in the Yakima valley that already have plenty. That part is easy to understand. What I don't understand is why Democrats Gregoire and now Inslee are so eager to do this for people and entities who will never vote for them or support them.

It's really discouraging to see this kind of start to the Inslee administration. Inslee has sometimes shown a degree of disdain for old fashioned enviro pursuits like protecting old forests, acting like he's left all that behind and moved on to rescuing the entire planet. I guess we'll see about that. This looks like nothing more than plain old corporate welfare, only now dressed up with the rhetoric of climate change. And breathtakingly expensive to boot.

Posted Tue, Mar 5, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

I can't agree more with Snoqualman. Few disagree that this Plan is complicated and have a myriad of stakeholders with radically different needs, and the coalition that has gotten things this far is impressive. However, there is serious and growing opposition to this Plan as it is currently written: dozens of conservation organizations have weighed in their opposition, thousands of citizens have taken the time to physically write in their opposition, and thousands more will be joining this movement in the upcoming year due to the efforts of a passionate community.

This community has fought this battle before, successfully in both the 70's and the 80's. The hinging point for all the aforementioned people is the planned destruction of Bumping Lake. People shouldn't let any hyperbole put forth by the Yakima Workgroup cloud the issue: everything that is unique and loved about Bumping Lake will be completely destroyed. Lake Powell destroyed. It would be an environmental and economic tragedy to dam and destroy Bumping Lake, and in an era of public celebration for the Elwha being restored to its natural beauty, do we want to have our generation associated with a boondoggle such as this?

Ecology has clearly stated that they have studied other inactive storage that could be subbed in for Bumping should it ever be taken out of the planning, and that's exactly what legislators have the responsibility of doing right now. If not now, then when?

Many thanks to Crosscut for finally addressing the opposition on this.

Maize

Posted Tue, Mar 5, 12:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Snoqualman and Maize give environmentalism a bad name by insisting on the perfect solution over a good solution. Yes, agricultural businesses will get water under the Yakima Plan. But so will instream values. Unless something's happened and the Yakama Nation has suddenly divested itself of it's strong environmental and cultural values, one can rest assured that the Plan is designed to benefit the environment, too. Who are these elitists who claim to know better than the people who have lived in the Yakima Basin for thousands of years?

Sounder

Posted Tue, Mar 5, 12:43 p.m. Inappropriate

Piffle. The Yakimas have their very own political and social pressures, just like anyone else. I won't second guess their decision that they agreed to sign off on this, but I sure as hell won't agree with a 50s or 60 era agribiz corporate welfare boondoggle that will be massively environmentally destructive.

Steve E.

Posted Thu, Mar 7, 8:21 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm with Sounder on this. One can make up one's own mind about how much perfection one wants to hold out for as climate change and population growth foreclose more and more restoration and protection opportunities, but one thing's for sure: the Yakima Integrated Plan ain't your grandaddy's Reclamation project. Those projects didn't increase salmon populations ten-fold like this one, they destroyed them.

mmaria

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