Pam Elardo: a director at King County Natural Resources
A passion for the environment and plenty of perseverance brought this division director to the job she always dreamed of
How many kids in the third grade know exactly what they want to do with their lives? And of the few who do, how many actually get to do it? Not many, most likely, but that's exactly how Pam Elardo's career is working out.
Elardo is currently division director at the King County, WA Department of Natural Resources and Parks Wastewater Treatment Division (WTD, Seattle, WA, www.kingcounty.gov/wtd). She implements the division's mission of protecting public health and the environment through sound stewardship and management of the largest regional wastewater utility in Washington state.
Her duties include environmental compliance, community interaction, and interfacing with the King County council on various projects and issues. All that in addition to putting in workforce productivity initiatives, overseeing team performance and directing division-wide teams to improve wastewater services and processes.
Elardo has fifteen direct reports who oversee some 600 staff members in areas like capital projects, resource recovery, media and finance. The WTD also has two major regional treatment plants that she visits every other week, as well as another one under construction and two small local plants.
Elardo's entire career has been devoted to environmental work. She grew up in suburban Chicago, and when she was in third grade a student teacher taught the class about environmental science. "I was thrilled when I found the field!" says Elardo. "It changed my life."
At first she didn't connect her passion for the environment with a career. "Then I found out about engineering and I went to my high school advisor to tell him that I was thinking about going to engineering school after graduation."
"You shouldn't do that," he told her. "Don't you realize it's a man's job?"
In those days a female might be expected to think, "Well, maybe I shouldn't," and that was Elardo's first thought. Her second reaction was "Forget you, mister!" She sent out her applications anyway.
"Thinking about it still makes me a little angry," she says, "because there were probably many young women who heard the same thing and backed down from valuable career opportunities."
College has its problems
Elardo went to Northwestern University in the late 1970s. "I was in the first wave of women who got into engineering school," she says proudly.
College had its problems. There were maybe 10 percent women in the chemical engineering program. And "There were a lot of old, crusty professors who just could not deal with women coming into the program," Elardo recalls. But she persevered and came out with a BSChE with an EnvE minor in 1983.
The Peace Corps and beyond
She immediately joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Nepal where she was put to work on water supply and sanitation systems. "It was real engineering!" she says. "The fruits of your labor were almost immediately apparent rather than happening years away."
She returned to the U.S. in 1986 and landed a job with the Washington State Department of Ecology (Olympia, WA) as an environmental engineer in the water quality program. She did a lot of regulatory work and soon had the job she had always wanted, working on environmental protection and pollution control technologies.
"I thought, 'Wow, now I'm doing what I always wanted to do!' But then I thought, 'What's next?' Eventually, new challenges came along."
In 1995 she went back to school for a MS in environmental engineering from the University of Washington. "I'd been in the environmental field since 1983 and in the Department of Ecology since 1986, so when I went back to school I would realize, 'Oh, that's a tool I can use in my job.' It really gave me a deeper understanding of the profession, and the ability to perform at a higher level."
On to King County
With the industry moving toward more watershed-based approaches for water quality protection, Elardo worked on a joint project with the King County (WA) Department of Natural Resources in 1998. In 2001 she applied for a job as managing supervisor of the department's environmental compliance and permitting unit.
She supervised project development, environmental permitting and land acquisition staff for construction of wastewater treatment projects in the Seattle/King County region, including work for the Brightwater regional wastewater treatment system, scheduled for completion next year.
In 2007 she became asset management section manager, leading more than a hundred people working on capital and asset management projects: engineers, project managers, facilities inspection staff and construction managers.
She moved on to manager of the West Point Treatment Plant. "It was very different from anything I had done before," she says, but she aced the job for two years plus, managing about 150 people responsible for operation and maintenance of the largest wastewater collection, conveyance and treatment system in Washington State. "This was the best job I ever had," Elardo says. "There was a real 'hands on' feel to the job that was just great!"
And now, of course, she's the division director at the King County WTD. She's kept the international perspective she got in the Peace Corps: in 1999, she was a co-founder and is president of the Living Earth Institute (LEI, Seattle, WA, living-earth.org). LEI is her volunteer "second job," leading an organization that provides technical assistance and education to communities in Asia, Africa and Latin America to protect health and environment through sustainable use of water resources.
Elardo loves her day job and after hours she lives her LEI mission. And sometimes she thinks about that student teacher in third grade who first set her on the environmental track.
"I wish I could meet that woman again. I'd love to tell her my story!"
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