Richard Whitman Abruptly Left His Position As Director Of Oregon’s Environmental Protection Agency. Why Did He Resign?

Three months ahead of plan, the director of Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality resigned from his position this week.

In June, agency head Richard Whitman, who has served in that capacity since 2016, announced his impending retirement. Whitman is stepping down early for personal reasons, according to department spokesman Harry Esteve.

“It has been an honor to work with you and the rest of the EQC over the past six years,” Whitman wrote in his letter of resignation to Kathleen George, chair of the Environmental Quality Commission. The department has made significant progress during this time, and I am certain that it will continue to take the lead in protecting every one of Oregon from environmental damage with a strong commission and an outstanding leadership team. The agency is supervised by a commission chosen by the governor.

According to an email George issued to the personnel of the agency on Tuesday, Whitman’s last day in office was on Wednesday. He was supposed to be on leave until his retirement on September 30.

Richard has done a good job of serving Oregon throughout the course of his long career, and his time at DEQ has strengthened the organization, she wrote.

Gov. Kate Brown was told of Whitman’s choice prior to George’s message to agency staff yesterday, according to Charles Boyle, a spokesman for Brown.

She backs the choice and thanks, Director Whitman, for his years of state service, according to Boyle.

George stated in her email that the organization has started a nationwide search for its next director. Leah Feldon, the agency’s deputy director, has been named acting director until the commission’s Friday meeting to determine the following steps. Feldon has been the organization’s deputy director for the past six years and has spent the majority of his time there in the Office of Compliance and Enforcement.

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 as well as the health and well-being of its people. I want to acknowledge upfront the anxiety and uncertainty that such a sudden change may create.

Whitman stated to 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 terrific replacement leader” in an interview regarding his impending retirement in June.

When the agency had to choose a new chief the last time, Esteve told the Chronicle that it was “very busy and crazy.”

Richard Whitman Abruptly Left His Position As Director Of Oregon
Richard Whitman Abruptly Left His Position As Director Of Oregon

Whitman’s six-month notice, according to him, would provide the organization with enough time to identify a replacement and allow for a transitional period between Brown and the incoming governor. When Whitman announced his retirement in June, Esteve claimed that Brown had not put any pressure on him to go and that he had instead received notes pleading with him to stay.

In October 2016, Whitman was appointed the department’s acting director after a number of interim managers filled the position in the wake of Dick Pedersen’s resignation as director. Pedersen left his position after eight years, citing health reasons.

Following an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive that found that DEQ had failed to inform Portland Public Schools about soil testing at a high school that showed high levels of arsenic and lead contamination, Pedersen resigned as a result of the public mishandling of information about the toxicity of southeast Portland’s air quality.

After conducting a countrywide search, Brown chose Whitman to serve as the permanent director in February 2017.

Whitman’s departure occurs as the organization is under investigation for years of nitrate pollution in northeast Oregon. The Environmental Department had been lax in taking action against the contamination, which had poisoned the drinking water of good users in Morrow and Umatilla counties, according to The Capital Chronicle.

The Port of Morrow, one of the basin’s polluters, was discovered by The Capital Chronicle to have spilled tonnes of extra nitrogen onto nearby farms for more than ten years with no DEQ enforcement.

The Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area is where the federal Environmental Protection Agency is considering using its emergency power under the federal Clean Water Act.

Whitman was director of the governor’s Natural Resources Office under former governors John Kitzhaber and later Brown before becoming the helm of DEQ.

Prior to that, Whitman served as Hardy Meyers’ deputy attorney general, the director of the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, and the head of the state Justice Department’s natural resources division.

In June, Whitman told the Capital Chronicle that he was most pleased with the agency’s expansion, the start of the Klamath hydropower dam removal project, and the passage of the Climate Protection Program.

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