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?
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Ecology Director Maia Bellon

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?

"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 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.

The department will, of course, have to make room in its budget for dealing with some big ticket items. Coal trains, for one. Bellon’s department won’t be calling the shots on coal. As Floyd McKay has explained in Crosscut, Ecology is just one of many state, federal and county agencies with a say over aspects of the proposed Cherry Point terminal, or any other coal port in the state. The various impacts will be vetted by more than half a dozen different state, federal and county entities.

"I don't know that I would put it as a matter of control," Bellon says, pointing out that her department can use the environmental impact statements required by the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) along with other means to make sure all the facts about coal ports see daylight. "Information is power," she says.

Ultimately, it’s the governor, not the director of Ecology, who will set the state's environmental agenda. Gov. Inslee hasn't done so yet, but Bellon notes that some of his positions are already clear. Inslee, for example, will not only publicly deplore Hanford tank leaks, he will also push alternative energy development. (During the campaign, that seemed to be his answer to all kinds of questions.) He will also emphasize how protecting the environment can create good jobs, and push the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Resources Management Plan, which has bitterly split the environmental community.

Bellon will be the governor’s point person for all these initiatives and she seems happy to stress their job creation aspects. Her agency has just announced $162 million in grants and loans for clean water projects. Most deal with non-point-source pollution, but the big bucks go to build wastewater treatment plants, with storm water facilities a distant second. Together, the projects are expected to produce more than 1,000 jobs.

Inslee's very first "request bill," as Bellon refers to it, "tries to codify" the Yakima Basin management plan, asks for an initial $23.6 million to start work and tells Ecology to begin. In his press release about Bellon's new job Inslee said she "will . . .  play a key role in shepherding" the Yakima water bill through the legislature.

Under the plan, new and expanded reservoirs would store water for farms, cities and fish in the Yakima Basin. Water in the basin is already over-appropriated, and climate change will probably exacerbate the problem by reducing runoff during summer months.

Cities and farmers have wanted more water storage for a long time. The full plan would involve raising the dam that currently holds back Bumping Lake and building a new Wymer Dam near Yakima. The plan also calls for preserving 46,000 acres, some of which are now open to private development, in the Teanaway, and 25,000 acres elsewhere, plus improving passage and keeping more water in the river for salmon.

Environmental organizations are split. Those that support the plan, including Forterra, Conservation Northwest, American Rivers, the Wilderness Society and the Bullitt Foundation, figure that the environmental benefits outweigh the cost of flooding old growth forest near Bumping Lake. Other environmental groups disagree. Those that oppose the plan, including the state chapter of the Sierra Club, the North Cascades Conservation Council and the Alpine Lakes Protective Society, believe the costs of destroying old growth and letting off-road vehicles use the land in the Teanaway are too high. 

Passage of Inslee's Yakima bill would hardly end the story. There will continue to be questions about — and, presumably, litigation over — parts of the plan, and the state money barely constitutes a down payment. Most of the package’s $5 billion estimate would have to come from the federal government. Any further negotiations and explanations to skeptical legislators will presumably land in Bellon's lap. 

The Yakima plan is not Ecology's only venture into collaborative decision-making. Bellon points to the new water management rule for the Dungeness River basin. People have long-established rights to more water than the river holds. Ecology brought irrigators with old water rights to the negotiating table along with the Jamestown S'Klallam tribe and the city of Sequim to work out a plan that should allow continued irrigation and development while still leaving more water in the river for fish. 

Bellon applauds this kind of collaborative approach. “That type of work, which is near and dear to my heart, is high up," she says on her list of priorities. In fact, the Yakima plan marks a significant change in the way Ecology does business. "Water resource management has been the age-old fight of winners and losers," says Bellon. "We are really trying to move toward an era of partnerships."

Bellon envisions players from all sides sitting down at the table, reaching an agreement in principle, then working out the details. Perhaps no one winds up with everything he or she wants, but everyone gets something. That, Bellon says, "should be the new face of water management."

Creating partnerships seems a natural role for Bellon, who has plenty of experience negotiating environmental conflicts with a variety of constituencies, and a well-deserved reputation for civility. The legislature has told Ecology to "aggressively pursue development of water supplies to benefit both in-stream and out-of-stream water uses" in the Columbia Basin, an odd mandate for an agency in the business of protecting natural resources. 

Some people with sterling environmental credentials would be uncomfortable with the apparent dissonance in that mandate. But Bellon has already presided over Ecology's effort to make more water available in both the Columbia and Yakima basins. It's not clear yet how well she'll function in the political spotlight where she's untested and largely unknown. If she's abandoned in its glare, it will mean that Inslee's attention has strayed elsewhere, much like Chris Gregoire's strayed from the issues affecting Puget Sound. That won't bode well for Bellon — or the state.



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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.