Oregon DEQ Director Jumps Ship After Air Pollution Scare
Eight months lapsed between the time the Department of Environmental Quality learned about cadmium and arsenic hotspots in Portland and when they notified residents. Test results showed the average arsenic levels were 159 times higher than the state’s safety goal; cadmium levels were 49 times higher.
Dick Pedersen, director of Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, resigned Tuesday amid an ongoing air pollution scare that’s drawn a massive outcry from residents and political leaders.
Pedersen said in a resignation letter that he would leave March 15. “I need to tend to some health concerns immediately,” he wrote, saying it was time to retire. Joni Hammond, the agency’s deputy director, will become the interim leader.
“Over his many years in state government, Dick has provided steady and dedicated leadership,” Gov. Kate Brown said in a prepared statement. “I am grateful for his service to the people of Oregon, and I will miss him as a trusted colleague and friend.”
His resignation was announced just an hour before an agency spokeswoman confirmed that David Monro, an air quality manager overseeing the Portland area, was also leaving the department for another job. Monro’s departure was already planned before Pedersen’s announcement, said the spokeswoman, Jennifer Flynt.
The departures come with the agency still trying to get in front of revelations that Southeast Portland’s air is more toxic than anyone knew, nearly a month after the problem was announced.
The agency was slow to respond to questions, delayed releasing documents and maps showing how widespread potential pollution hotspots were and struggled to coordinate with other government agencies. Emails obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive on Friday revealed that Pedersen’s agency failed to notify Portland Public Schools for a month about a soil test at Cleveland High School that found high levels of arsenic and lead contamination.
Since the Portland air pollution problem was revealed Feb. 3, Pedersen repeatedly shunned the spotlight. He didn’t take the stage at a Feb. 9 community meeting where more than 750 worried Portland residents hurled criticism at his agency. Monro instead took the stage, leaving many key questions unanswered.
Pedersen also didn’t appear at a Feb. 12 press conference announcing two glassmaking companies suspended using hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing heavy metal made famous by the movie “Erin Brockovich.”
It wasn’t until a Feb. 18 meeting at Harriet Tubman Middle that Pedersen took the stage and offered a mea culpa. “We as an agency are not doing enough to prevent – to reduce or prevent – emissions from these kinds of industrial facilities,” he said then. “We need to do more.”
Pedersen had quickly faced pressure from Brown to respond to alarmed residents and document exactly what the agency knew – and when. But a timeline he submitted to the governor contained errors, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported Friday. He told the governor his agency had learned about a potential toxic air hotspot at the center of the scare in May 2015.
It actually happened in November 2014, six months earlier.
Pedersen, a long-time department employee who became director in 2008, presided over an agency with little to show for an eight-year-long effort to clean up Portland’s toxic air. While he repeatedly claimed that addressing air pollution sources like heavy metals and diesel soot were high priorities, his agency made little progress, repeatedly opting for voluntary steps over tougher regulation.
As California and Washington invested tens of millions in cleaning up dirty diesel engines, Oregon spent less than $1 million – and Pedersen never asked state lawmakers for more.
In response to the current crisis, Pedersen promised to begin tightening state rules that control industrial sources of toxic pollution, which go unregulated today. He said the state agency would aggressively protect public health – even though it already had the power to do so.
The agency’s response was so tepid to a problem so long-standing that Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Multnomah County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury called for the creation of a local air pollution district that would usurp the state’s authority to control Portland’s air.
Many neighbors who live in the newly identified pollution hotspots had called for Pedersen to be fired, saying they’d lost faith in the Department of Environmental Quality.
But advocates and environmental leaders hadn’t publicly called for Pedersen to be ousted, an acknowledgment that many of the criticisms facing the agency today long preceded him. He took the job in 2008 amid long-standing concerns about low morale, staff turnover and accusations the agency frequently kowtowed to industry.
Mary Peveto, president of Neighbors for Clean Air, a Portland advocacy group, said she worried Pedersen was being used as the fall guy for a problem far larger than one person. She said she was still waiting to see whether Brown and state lawmakers would work to overhaul an agency culture that allowed the problem to fester.
“We should be looking for his position to be replaced by someone with environmental health credentials,” Peveto said. “That would be a huge shift of what that agency is going to prioritize.”