Dianne Nielson, a leader noted for keeping remarkably cool in the hot seat of many of Utah's most contentious environmental and energy issues, announced Thursday she is retiring from state government.
Although she served as the governor's energy adviser during the past three years, she is best known as the longtime leader of the state's Department of Environmental Quality, beginning in 1993, and guiding Utah through its fight against high-level radioactive waste storage, helping shape the state's first climate-change policy and mediating innumerable fights between industry and environmentalists over the best way to protect Utah's air, land and water. She served 27 years in state government under a roster of six governors in both major parties.
"She had a knack for staying above the fray while being in the middle of it," said community activist Steve Erickson.
Nielson's departure comes at the same time as a flurry of departures of top officials from Gov. Gary Herbert's administration. Earlier this week, David Sundwall stepped down as executive director of the Utah Department of Health. Last month, Herbert's chief of staff, Jason Perry, left, as did budget director John Nixon and communications director Angie Welling.
Nielson, who is known for being fiercely private, said she told Herbert last month about her plans. Her resignation letter was dated Dec. 15.
"I'll still be out there fighting the fight," she said. "I'm leaving state government, but I don't know what I'll be doing yet."
Nielson, who has a doctorate in geology, moved to Utah with her husband after they both landed jobs. The couple raised a son and a daughter here. And Nielson ended up in the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, where she served as a senior economic geologist and, for a time, as the division's director.
Later, as the second director of the Department of Environmental Quality, she played key roles in the cleanup of the Atlas uranium mill tailings near Moab; the remediation of the Sharon Steel site tailings; the creation of a regional plan for cutting haze in national parks; and the destruction of stockpiled chemical weapons.
Former Gov. Mike Leavitt tapped Nielson to lead the state's opposition to a nuclear waste storage site proposed for Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation in Tooele County. Although a trusted lieutenant to Leavitt, she didn't follow him to Washington when he became administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the Bush administration.
Nielson credited teamwork for the agency's accomplishments during her lengthy tenure.
"We actually hammered out solutions and hammered them out on the ground," she said. "I've enjoyed being part of that."
In a news release, Herbert applauded Nielson's service and noted her role in helping Utah become a leader in a compressed natural gas transportation network.
"I praise her leadership on energy development, environmental quality and stewardship of our natural resources," he said. "Her efforts have been key to the responsible development of Utah's energy future, and I wish her the best of luck in the future."
People in the environmental community and industry praised Nielson's work.
Ernie Wessman, chairman of the Utah Air Quality Board, noted that Nielson was good at finding common ground on both environmental and energy issues.
"Dianne is very committed," he said, "to making sure the environment was protected, while working with industry and all the other stakeholders to find solutions that would work for everyone."
Kelly Payne, environmental manager at Kennecott Utah Copper, noted that Nielson was effective in getting a massive project started that allowed the mining company to avoid becoming a Superfund cleanup site while ensuring pollution from historic mining is cleaned up.
"We appreciate Dianne's leadership in bringing people together to talk about solutions to the groundwater cleanup in the southwest corner of the valley," Payne said. "She has always been willing to listen to every perspective."
Kathy Van Dame, policy coordinator for the Wasatch Clean Air Coalition and member of the Air Quality Board, called Nielson "a great leader in our state."
"She has been outstanding at the stakeholder process."
Added Erickson, who said that he and Nielson didn't always see eye to eye: "She'll be missed in many respects. I always knew I could talk to her. I knew she would listen."
Editor's note: Ken Alkema was the first state director of the Department of Environmental Quality, an agency created in 1992. Dianne Nielson took the post in 1993.
The Herbert administration apparently hasn't made any final decisions.
Ted Wilson, adviser to the governor on environmental issues, said there is talk about reworking the state's energy program. Instead of simply replacing Dianne Nielson, the second person to have held the post of energy adviser, there might be a new division or department to address energy issues.
"The governor is looking at various ways to reorganize," Wilson said.