Science & Environment

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality names new director

By Monica Samayoa (OPB)
Feb. 10, 2023 11:53 p.m.

After a nationwide search, the state environmental agency’s interim director, Leah Feldon, will take the helm

On Friday, the commission overseeing the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality voted unanimously to appoint Leah Feldon as the agency’s new leader. Feldon, who has been with the agency for more than 18 years, was most recently serving as interim director since September when Richard Whitman resigned. Feldon was previously the state agency’s deputy director and has served in several different positions within the agency since 2005.

“Being director of a state agency, it’s a daunting but it’s also a really incredibly exciting opportunity, as I’ve begun to get a little bit of a taste of the last couple months as interim director,” she said.

Leah Feldon has been appointed to be the director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Leah Feldon has been appointed to be the director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality / Oregon Department of Enviromental Quality

After more than a seven-month national search, the Environmental Quality Commission, which oversees the environmental agency, selected two finalists, Feldon, and Jamie McLeod-Skinner.

McLeod-Skinner recently ran for Oregon’s 5th Congressional District, a freshly redrawn district from Clackamas County to Bend, as a Democratic candidate. She unseated longtime incumbent Rep. Kurt Schrader in the Democratic primary but came up short for the federal seat against Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer.

McLeod-Skinner most recently worked in the Oregon Department of Human Services and has more than 25 years of management experience in public, private and nonprofit sectors, according to a statement released by the Department of Environmental Quality last month.

She could not immediately be reached for comment.

“We had two incredibly qualified finalists,” EQC Commission Chair Kathleen George said. “Leah Feldon stood out as the kind of leader DEQ needs right now because of her deep understanding of DEQ and her vision for taking the agency to a new level. She is committed to building a more inclusive and welcoming agency while addressing Governor Tina Kotek’s expectations for accountability in serving Oregonians.”


During Friday’s interview process, Feldon said she will be continuing to work on improving the agency’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. She also vowed to do a better job retaining Black, Indigenous and people of color as employees at her agency. Feldon said that will require all employees to work together and bridge conversations that are being had in different departments from strategic planning to leadership to management levels. She said these changes would prompt a change in culture and hold people accountable.

“A culture change is going to have to mean that people see accountability and that people don’t continue to experience the same thing over and over, that will not be tolerated at this agency,” she said.

The commissioners also asked how Feldon would bring in fresh ideas as someone that’s been part of the agency since 2005. Feldon said she can hit the ground running and knows what areas have strengths and what areas need improvement. She also said she will collaborate with her team, leadership, communities and stakeholders in bringing in new ideas and perspectives.

“Oregon can and should do better, we have to be vigilant in caring for it and that many of our residents do not get to enjoy its benefits equally and don’t have a seat at the table when we are discussing its future,” she said. “For those reasons and many others, I’m thrilled to be able to continue working on expanding and improving upon the mission of DEQ.”

Feldon will continue her role as interim director until her start date and pay for her new job are determined.

Feldon will be taking charge as a groundwater contamination crisis in Eastern Oregon has begun to garner more attention over the last year. The agency is part of a committee tasked with cleaning up the pollution in the region, but the problem has persisted after more than 30 years. Affected residents in the area have been frustrated by the lack of urgency and inaction to clean up the pollution.

In Portland, the agency will also be considering the controversial oil terminal Zenith Energy’s air quality permit application, later this year, after the Portland city officials approved an essential development certification. Both are major issues to which the public is calling for solutions.

Columbia Riverkeeper’s executive director Lauren Goldberg said Oregon needs a leader who can stand up to powerful special interests. She said Feldon fits the bill.

“Leah is a leader with the integrity, know-how, and drive to lead DEQ,” Goldberg said. “Her leadership in holding the federal government accountable for decades of toxic pollution along the Columbia near Bonneville Dam stands out as a recent example where Leah showed up for environmental justice and acted on the calls of Tribal Nations and impacted communities.”

She hopes Feldon will use the agency’s full authority to protect clean water, public health, and climate. Goldberg said the agency’s top priorities should include fixing loopholes in the state Climate Protection Program, holding groundwater polluters accountable in Morrow and Umatilla counties and rejecting permits for fossil-fuel infrastructure.


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