Ecology director to resign

Ecology director to resign
Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon has announced she will resign at the end of the year. Photo: freepik.com

Ecology Director Maia Bellon has announced her resignation just weeks following a letter from U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers questioning her congressional testimony on the state’s water quality standards.

After seven years as the state agency’s head, Bellon wrote in a Dec. 2 statement that she will resign at the end of the year. “It’s the right time for me to make a professional and personal change.”

Incidentally, that is precisely what attorney James Tupper told Lens last week she should do following her September testimony to the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. Tupper has represented the Northwest Pulp & Paper Association in several lawsuits, including a 2017 petition to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reconsider Ecology’s water quality standards submitted to the federal agency in 2016. Those standards were ultimately rejected by the EPA later that year. Although Ecology’s rule drew concerns among industry and local government associations regarding implementation costs, the EPA’s standards are considered unattainable with existing technology.

Both Ecology and the EPA’s standards use a one in a million cancer risk rate that was arbitrarily created in the 1970s. Ecology’s initial draft rule intended to use one in one hundred thousand, but it was later removed; public comment from the EPA in 2016 on Ecology’s draft rule suggested the one in a million risk rate was necessary, even though it exceeds the federal agency’s own requirements. Emails obtained by Lens show Ecology staff repeatedly requesting an explanation from the EPA as to why one in a million was needed.

“The human health quality standards are imbued with the concept of zero (risk),” Tupper said. “This is something that was never explained by the EPA in terms of what they were doing or demanding of the state of Washington.”

During the Sept. 18 congressional hearing, Bellon repeatedly referred to the water quality standards imposed on the state by the EPA as “our rule”, claiming that using standards adopted by Ecology would be “regressive.” She made similar remarks during a Sept. 25 public hearing over the EPA’s proposal to adopt her agency’s rules, saying it would be tantamount to “systematically dismantling clean water protections and states’ rights.”

“If she had any sense of dignity, she’d resign,” Tupper said. “How can she lead an agency that so thoroughly went through the science and did an incredible job of coming up with standards…then said the state’s own standards put people’s health at risk?”

Bellon’s comments also drew a response from McMorris Rodgers in a Nov. 15 letter seeking clarification of her remarks. The letter cites Bellon’s own statement following the EPA’s decision to reject Ecology’s rule in which she said she was “disappointed” with the news.

“You now seem to be conflating the Obama EPA-imposed federal standards, that you previously criticized, with the State’s own standards,” the Nov. 15 letter states. “I find it curious that you would now support the unachievable federal standards when you and your staff are pursuing a policy of granting variances that fully recognize the unachievable standards must be waived to allow local governments, farmers and employers to stay in business.”

While one of Bellon’s arguments against EPA’s reversal is that the state is too far involved in implementing the new standards, Tupper says the claim “makes no sense whatsoever. They really haven’t done anything. They’re not doing anything in their water quality program that would change one iota if EPA takes the second step (adopts Ecology’s rule). Fundamentally, all that would change is there would be a path forward for Ecology and the regulated community moving forward toward achieving the water quality standards.”

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