Science & Environment

Oregon environmental head steps down ahead of schedule

By Todd Milbourn (OPB)
Sept. 23, 2022 12:23 a.m.

Richard Whitman helped lead the state’s efforts to combat climate change and pollution

Oregon’s leading environmental officer has resigned his position three months before his scheduled retirement.

Richard Whitman, director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality

Richard Whitman, director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said he's stepping down as head of the agency he's led since 2016,

Oregon DEQ

Richard Whitman, a longtime state bureaucrat who’s led the Department of Environmental Quality since 2016, told staff that Wednesday would be his last day in the role. He had previously announced his retirement at the end of the year.

Harry Esteve, an agency spokesperson, said Whitman moved up his retirement for “personal reasons.”

The state has hired a consulting firm to conduct a national search for Whitman’s replacement. Leah Feldon, who’s been with the agency since 2005 and serves as its deputy director, will lead the agency in the interim.


Whitman announced his accelerated departure in a letter to the Environmental Quality Commission, the governor-appointed body that oversees DEQ. Whitman wrote that he’s leaving the agency in a position of strength, and it “will continue to lead in protecting all of Oregon from environmental harms.” His resignation was first reported by the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

DEQ has a staff of 700 employees and is responsible for a host of environmental regulations, including smog-testing, air quality monitoring and enforcing the federal Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.

During his tenure, Whitman oversaw substantial policy changes, including the implementation of Oregon’s landmark Climate Protection Program. Created by an executive order from Gov. Kate Brown in 2021, the plan requires an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

In an interview with OPB, Whitman called the program “a key glue” that binds a suite of carbon-reduction programs such as clean fuel requirements, energy efficiency programs and electric vehicle incentives.

Whitman oversaw several high-profile enforcement measures, including one of the largest penalties in agency history – a $2.1 million fine against a roofing-shingle manufacturer that pumped toxic formaldehyde into a North Portland neighborhood for over a decade. The fine was later reduced to $1.5 million as part of a settlement.

Whitman’s DEQ faced criticism over its handling of nitrate pollution in the groundwater of Morrow and Umatilla counties – a problem that’s contaminated groundwater there for decades. Amid public outcry, DEQ levied a $2.1 million fine against the Port of Morrow in June.

Before joining DEQ, Whitman served in a range of statewide environmental positions, including director of the Department of Land Conservation and Development and natural resources attorney in the Department of Justice.

The Environmental Quality Commission will discuss the transition during its Friday meeting.