Leah Feldon is current interim director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and was chosen to continue leading the agency as its permanent director. (Photo provided Oregon Department of Environmental Quality)

Leah Feldon’s stint filing in as director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality was made permanent Friday.

The state’s Environmental Quality Commission voted unanimously to move her from interim director to the head of the agency over one other final candidate: emergency manager and former Oregon congressional candidate Jamie McLeod-Skinner.

The five governor-appointed members of the commission made the decision following two days of interviews with the candidates, who were named in January after a three-month nationwide search undertaken by EFL Associates, a recruitment company based in Denver. The state paid  the company $49,600 for its work, according to the contract provided by DEQ. McLeod-Skinner was encouraged to apply by Commission Chair Kathleen George, according to her cover letter. 

Feldon will oversee more than 700 employees who work on state and federal programs to protect Oregon’s air, water and land, and a yearly budget of about $270 million. She’s worked at the environmental quality department for 17 years, primarily in its Office of Compliance and Enforcement. She’s spent the last six years as deputy director to former Director Richard Whitman, who resigned three months before his scheduled retirement. Department spokesperson Harry Esteve said at the time that Whitman’s decision was due to personal reasons. Feldon has been serving as interim director in Whitman’s stead since September.

The final interviews Friday morning were streamed over Zoom, and attended virtually by at least 100 people. In her interview, Feldon said she would prioritize the expansion of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at the agency and fill a vacant equity?  director position. She said she would lead collaboratively within the agency and with people across the state. 

“We’re going to continue to reach out to communities and stakeholders to find out: Where do they see issues? What do they perceive as areas that we need to innovate and do things better?” she said. “At the core, it’s not a reliance just on your own ideas. It’s knowing that you’re not in a position of leadership because you know everything,” she said. 

Feldon said she has spent the last six years as deputy director building a leadership team that she trusts. “I do not enjoy being out there just solely by myself,” she said.

In response to a question about the challenges ahead, she said the agency has been funded for new initiatives but not for long-term needs. She said transparency with lawmakers about what the agency can do with its budget is key. 

“When we are not funded for something, we have to stop doing it,” she said. “It would be my job to make sure that I’m talking to legislators, and I’m talking to the governor’s office and saying, ‘This isn’t funded anymore, and we really can’t do it and I want you to be aware of that.’” 

Lauren Goldberg, director of the nonprofit conservation group Columbia Riverkeeper, said Feldon has integrity and the experience to lead the agency. She also hopes Feldon uses her full authority to protect Oregon’s environment. 

“Our hope is to see DEQ’s new director use the agency’s full authority to protect clean water, public health and our climate,” she said. 

The group is one of several that petitioned the federal Environmental Protection Agency three years ago to exercise its executive authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act and to intervene in the water pollution problems in Morrow and Umatilla counties. The petitioners said state agencies have allowed groundwater nitrate pollution to worsen and further contaminate drinking water in wells used by thousands of residents in the region. Goldberg said holding drinking-water polluters accountable in Morrow and Umatilla counties is among the group’s top priorities. 

“Oregon needs a leader who can stand up to powerful special interests. We’re hopeful that Leah is just that person,” Goldberg said.

In her cover letter, Feldon said the state faces complex challenges responding to natural disasters caused by climate change, transitioning off fossil fuels in the face of growing energy demands and confronting water quality and quantity issues for both businesses and people. 

“We must determine whether our ‘tried and true’ regulatory mechanisms genuinely protect communities experiencing disproportionate environmental burdens,” she wrote. “This challenge requires scrutiny and determination to ensure we address public health needs across our state.”

Feldon is a graduate of the University of Dayton, a private college in Ohio, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology. She earned a law degree in environmental sciences and natural resources from Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland in 2004, and began working at DEQ shortly after graduating. 

Feldon’s salary and official start date are yet to be determined, George said. 

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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.