By Ken Ward Jr.
West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Austin Caperton on Friday fired Wendy Radcliff, the leader of the DEP’s Office of Environmental Advocate.
The move immediately drew strong criticism from West Virginia citizen groups and environmental organizations that were already wary of how Caperton, a longtime coal industry consultant, would run the agency charged with regulating mining, gas drilling and other industries.
“I’m really almost speechless,” said Cindy Rank, the longtime mining chairwoman for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “If they wanted to alienate the citizens and the environmental community, this is the way to do it.”
Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said it is shocking that Caperton made the move prior to a newly scheduled meeting the week after next with representatives of her organization, the Highlands Conservancy, the West Virginia League of Women Voters and the West Virginia Environmental Council.
“This is troublesome news,” Rosser said. “Wendy Radcliff has been the direct line for citizen concerns to help make sure the agency is accountable to the public. It’s concerning this decision seemingly was made without input from the people who the environmental advocate is designed to serve.”
Caperton, who is just finishing his second week on the job for Gov. Jim Justice, also fired Kelley Gillenwater, the DEP’s communications director.
Gillenwater and Radcliff declined to comment Friday, but their firing was confirmed by numerous DEP sources who asked not to be identified.
Radcliff, an attorney, has filled the environmental advocate post for more than six years during two stints at the agency. Gillenwater had been communications director for nearly three years and, while emphasizing the DEP’s position on various issues, also had developed a reputation for pushing to make agency officials more responsive to news media requests.
The Justice administration offered no complete explanation for the shakeup at the DEP, and it was not clear what — if any — other changes Caperton planned to make among the top leadership at the agency.
Caperton did not return phone calls and, on orders from the Governor’s Office, has rejected interview requests from the Gazette-Mail. Caperton, an engineer and an attorney, previously worked for A.T. Massey Coal and for his family’s company, Slab Fork Coal. He’s worked as an energy industry consultant since 1989, but a list of his clients has not been made public.
Jake Glance, an assistant to Gillenwater in the DEP public information office, provided a one-sentence statement via email, but did not return phone calls or answer emailed questions about the statement.
“We are restructuring to make our operation more efficient by consolidating roles,” the statement from Glance said.
Under state law, the DEP is required to have an environmental advocate and a public information officer. There was not a clear answer on Friday about whether Caperton plans to fill either post or combine their functions, or what his timeline is for either option.
And, the DEP’s rules for the environmental advocate office specifically state that the advocate “may not in any official capacity organize public campaigns” either to oppose or support “positions taken” by the DEP “on environmental matters,” a prohibition that would seem to create a roadblock to combining the advocate and communications director roles.
Friday also was the deadline for Caperton’s internal request that each of the more than 800 DEP employees submit to him “at least one cost-saving idea for the agency.” In a memo to DEP employees, Caperton had said Justice “has directed that we do everything in our power to eliminate waste and find savings.” Caperton asked that the ideas be provided through an online survey or provided to Gillenwater.
An exact breakdown of the environmental advocate office budget was not available, because its spending is combined within the total for the DEP’s executive offices. But in addition to Radcliff, the office had two other employees and shared a secretary with a separate DEP Office of Small Business Ombudsman, whose stated role at the agency is to “safeguard small business’s rights and help them when they have problems with regulatory agencies.”
The DEP environmental advocate office was created by the Legislature in 1994, at the behest of then-state Sen. David Grubb, D-Kanawha. Grubb had threatened to hold up passage of a 1,400-page, industry-backed bill to consolidate the state’s various environmental agencies unless language was added to create a position aimed at helping everyday citizens navigate the DEP’s complex regulatory system.
Early on, the office faced repeated but unsuccessful efforts by some Republican lawmakers to eliminate it. And various industry trade groups tried during a public comment period on the rules governing the advocate office to narrowly define the position’s role at DEP.
The West Virginia Manufacturers Association, for example, opposed giving the office additional staff and argued against the idea that citizens needed help getting more of voice in state environmental policymaking.
Radcliff, though, served as environmental advocate under five different top DEP leaders — including two whose backgrounds were in the coal industry — and in both Democratic and Republican administrations. She began in mid-1994 under then-DEP Director David C. Callaghan during the Democratic administration of Gov. Gaston Caperton, who is Austin Caperton’s cousin.
Among other projects, Radcliff helped DEP officials organize a Citizens’ Strip Mine Tour in 1997 that provided one of the first close-up glimpses of the impact of mountaintop removal on residents in some coalfield communities. During the administration of Republican Cecil Underwood, Radcliff lasted for about 18 months, before resigning in June 1998, citing differences in philsophy and other career opportunities.
Longtime Kanawha Valley chemical plant safety activist Pam Nixon took over as environmental advocate later in 1998. Nixon retired at the end of 2013 and then-DEP Secretary Randy Huffman convinced Radcliff to come back in June 2014.
Huffman, who left earlier this month for a full-time position with the West Virginia Air National Guard, made Radcliff part of the DEP’s senior staff, which provided access to regular meetings of the agency’s division directors. Among other things, Radcliff organized a program that helped find and better train emerging leaders within the agency’s ranks.
“I really got to know Wendy well over past few years when she agreed to come back to [the] DEP and serve as our state’s environmental advocate,” Huffman said Friday. “Her enthusiasm and passion for West Virginia is contagious. I appreciate how she understands the nexus between environmental protection and economic growth and how faithfully she supports the role of [the] DEP in that mix. She is selfless in all she does and she makes everyone around her better. I consider her a friend of mine and a friend of West Virginia.”
Bill Price, senior organizer for the Sierra Club in West Virginia, said he is troubled by Radcliff’s dismissal.
“Wendy Radcliff is a person that people trusted when they felt unheard,” Price said. “Is this a sign of how the people of West Virginia will be shut out by the Justice administration?”
“For many who have well water woes or who are worried about another coal slurry spill, have questions about an oil and gas or coal permit or have any number of questions about how to interact with [the] DEP, Wendy’s the first point of contact,” said Vivian Stockman, vice director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “She’s friendly, helpful and competent. She does the agency proud, so her dismissal is confounding.“
Note: This article previously appeared in The Charleston Gazette.