Oregon’s Environmental Quality Department chief announces retirement

Richard Whitman has led the department for five years and will end his tenure in state government at the end of this year

By: - June 22, 2022 12:01 pm

DEQ Director Richard Whitman (left) with Environmental Quality Commissioners Sam Baraso, Wade Mosby, Molly Kile and Kathleen George. (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality)

Richard Whitman, the director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, announced Wednesday that he will retire at year’s end. The decision was not a sudden one, according to Harry Esteve, a department spokesperson. 

“He’s 65, about to turn 66, and he’s been in state government for 25 years,” Esteve said. “He felt the time was right for him and that the time was right for DEQ to go through a transition.”

Whitman has been director of the department for five years. 

Whitman told the Capital Chronicle Wednesday that he is most proud of building up staff numbers in the agency, getting the Klamath hydroelectric dam removal project underway and getting the Climate Protection Program passed.

“The highlight for me was the (Environmental Quality) Commission’s decision to adopt climate protection rules last December,” Whitman said. “It shows how a smaller state like Oregon can do this, not just California.”

That program regulates fossil fuel suppliers in the state, requiring them to pay per ton of carbon dioxide they emit above limits that get lower over time until fossil fuels are phased out. 

Director Richard Whitman (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality)

“DEQ is in a really good place right now,” Whitman said. “New, energetic staff are coming up and becoming leaders themselves.”

A nationwide search for a new leader will launch soon, according to Esteve, and DEQ’s website will include a page in the next few days that outlines the timeline and details of the search process. 

“Last time there was a leadership turnover it was pretty hectic and chaotic,” Esteve said. Whitman’s six-month notice “gives us enough time so there could be a little overlap in the transition process with the sitting governor and governor elect,” he said.

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. 

His resignation followed a public mishandling of information around the toxicity of southeast Portland’s air quality and an investigation by The Oregonian that found 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 Gov. Kate Brown in February 2017, following a nationwide search. 

Whitman’s departure comes as the agency faces scrutiny over decades of nitrate pollution in the Lower Umatilla Groundwater Basin Management Area in northeast Oregon. Despite the agency’s efforts to stop the flow of nitrate from farm fertilizers and food processors into area groundwater, the basin has become increasingly polluted during the last 30 years, contaminating the drinking water of well users in Morrow and Umatilla Counties.

An investigation earlier this year by the Capital Chronicle found that one of the polluters in the basin, the Port of Morrow, dumped tons of excess nitrogen onto area farm fields for more than a decade with little enforcement from DEQ. 

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is considering its future involvement with the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area, including use of its emergency authority under the federal Clean Water Act. The agency will have more information about that involvement by September, according to Bill Dunbar, a public affairs officer for the agency’s Northwest Region.

Esteve said there was no pressure from Brown for Whitman to retire. 

“Maybe the opposite,” Esteve said. “He got messages urging him to reconsider and stay.” 

Charles Boyle, the governor’s deputy communications director said in an email that Whitman, “Informed the governor of his interest in retiring at the end of the year well prior to this week’s announcement. She wishes him the best and thanks him for his decades of service to Oregon in multiple director roles.”

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 said much work needs to be done in his last six months, including expanding DEQ’s Advance Clean Truck Rule. That requires manufacturers of buses, medium and heavy-duty trucks and tractor-trailer rigs to begin selling more zero emissions electric vehicles beginning in 2025. 

In November, the Environmental Quality Commission, the governor-appointed panel that serves as the policy and rulemaking board for DEQ, will decide whether to adopt rules on light duty vehicles, too. 

Whitman also is focused on seeing the Climate Protection Program implemented, putting the final touches on the removal of the four Klamath River hydroelectric dams to begin in 2023 and, “Helping the commission and the agency with finding a great new leader,” he said. 

CORRECTION: The EPA is considering its future involvement with the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area, including use of its emergency authority. The federal agency is not considering taking over the groundwater area as a previous story stated.

 

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.

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