The head of Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality resigned from the job this week, three months before his scheduled retirement.
Richard Whitman, who led the agency since 2016, had announced in June that he would retire at the end of the year. Department spokesperson Harry Esteve said Whitman is resigning early due to personal reasons.
In his letter of resignation to Environmental Quality Commission Chair Kathleen George, Whitman said, “It has been a privilege to work with you and the rest of the EQC over the past six years. The department has accomplished much during this time, and I am confident that with a strong commission and an exceptional leadership team DEQ will continue to lead in protecting all of Oregon from environmental harms.” The governor-appointed commission oversees DEQ.
Whitman’s last day in office was Sept. 21, according to an email George sent to DEQ staff on Tuesday. It said he would be on leave until his retirement Sept. 30.
“Richard has served Oregon well over his long career, and his time at DEQ has helped strengthen the agency,” she wrote.
Charles Boyle, a spokesperson for Gov. Kate Brown, said in an email that Brown was informed of Whitman’s decision prior to George’s message to DEQ staff.
“She is supportive of the decision, and thanks Director Whitman for his years of service to the state,” Boyle wrote.
In her email, George said the agency has begun a nationwide recruitment effort for its next director. The commission will meet to discuss next steps and has appointed the agency’s deputy director, Leah Feldon, as acting director. Feldon has been deputy director for six years and has worked at the agency for 17 years, primarily in the Office of Compliance and Enforcement.
“I want to acknowledge upfront the anxiety and uncertainty that such a sudden change may create,” George wrote, “but I also want to assure you that I have no concerns about DEQ’s ability to continue its mission of protecting Oregon’s air, land and water and the health and wellbeing of its people.”
In an interview about his retirement in June, Whitman told the Capital Chronicle that there was still a lot of work to be done in his remaining six months and that he was focused on “helping the commission and the agency with finding a great new leader.”
Esteve told the Chronicle at the time that it was “pretty hectic and chaotic” the last time the agency had to find a new leader. He said Whitman’s six-month notice would give the agency enough time to find a new director and allow for overlap between Gov. Kate Brown and the next governor. Esteve said at the time that there was no pressure from Brown to retire and that Whitman had received messages urging him to stay after he announced his retirement in June.
Whitman was named acting director of the department in October 2016, after several interim leaders filled the role following the departure of former Director Dick Pedersen. Pedersen resigned after eight years on the job, citing health concerns.
Pedersen’s resignation followed a public mishandling of information around the toxicity of southeast Portland’s air quality and an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive that found that DEQ had failed to notify Portland Public Schools about soil testing at a high school that showed high levels of arsenic and lead contamination.
Whitman was appointed director by Brown in February 2017, following a nationwide search.
Whitman’s resignation comes as the agency faces scrutiny over decades of nitrate pollution in northeast Oregon. The Capital Chronicle revealed that DEQ had been lax in cracking down on the pollution, which has contaminated the drinking water of well users in Morrow and Umatilla counties.
The Capital Chronicle found that one of the polluters in the basin, the Port of Morrow, dumped tons of excess nitrogen onto area fields for more than a decade with little enforcement from DEQ.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency is considering use of its emergency authority under the federal Clean Water Act to intervene in the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area.
Prior to his role leading DEQ, Whitman had served as director for the governor’s Natural Resources Office under former Gov. John Kitzhaber and then Brown. Before that, Whitman was director of the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development and head of the natural resources section of the state Justice Department under then-Attorney General Hardy Meyers.
Whitman told the Capital Chronicle in June that he was most proud of growing the size of the agency, getting the Klamath hydroelectric dam removal project underway and getting the Climate Protection Program passed.
“DEQ is in a really good place right now,” he said. “New, energetic staff are coming up and becoming leaders themselves.”
Oregon Capital Chronicle (oregoncapitalchronicle.com) is a professional, nonprofit news organization focused on deep and useful reporting on Oregon state government, politics and policy.