Portland’s air is dirtier than we thought. A study conducted by researchers at the U.S. Forest Service revealed dangerously high levels of heavy metals in Portland, sparking an investigation into the sources and causing regulators and officials to question why the pollution was left unchecked for so long.
Gov. Kate Brown’s Natural Resource Policy Director Richard Whitman will be stepping in as the next interim director of the troubled Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
The Oregon Environmental Quality Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to appoint Whitman as a replacement for interim director Pete Shepherd, who was appointed by the commission in April. Whitman will assume the position Oct. 15 and stay in the role until a permanent director is hired.
Shepherd replaced Joni Hammond, the agency’s deputy director who stepped up when longtime director Dick Pedersen resigned in March. But Shepherd’s term as interim director was set to end Oct. 14 and the commission is still searching for a new permanent director.
The agency has been rocked by revelations of toxic heavy metal air pollution in Portland that went largely undetected by the state’s environmental regulators. State leaders are now revamping air pollution rules in response to public outcry while searching for a new director for DEQ and shuffling the agency’s existing leadership.
“We feel like this gives us good breathing room as we conduct our search for the permanent director,” said EQC Commission Chair Jane O’Keeffe.
Whitman said he volunteered for the job of interim DEQ director because he wants to help the agency.
“I am somebody who cares deeply about Oregon and the values that make it such a special place to live,” he said. “I felt very strongly the desire to help the agency build that foundation to really come back to the national forefront as a leader in terms of how we protect the environment and our public health.”
Whitman has important knowledge of the state and its processes and can help “steer us through the very near and upcoming legislative session,” said Colleen Johnson, one of the environmental quality commissioners.
The state Legislature will approve the agency’s budget in the upcoming session.
“Having Richard Whitman as the director to help with that process will I’m sure make it smoother and more likely that we’ll be successful,” Johnson said.
Whitman formerly directed the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development. He was tapped to be natural resource advisor to then-Gov. John Kitzhaber in 2011.
Correction: Oct. 7, 2016. An earlier version of this story did not correctly indicate how Pete Shepherd became interim director of the Department of Environmental Quality. He as appointed by the Environmental Quality Commission, not by Gov. Kate Brown.