Ken Ward Jr., Staff Writer
January 27, 2017
Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Austin Caperton today fired Wendy Radcliff, the leader of the agency’s Office of Environmental Advocate, a move that immediately drew strong criticism from a state environmental community that was 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.”
Bill Price, senior organizer for the Sierra Club in West Virginia, said, “Wendy Radcliff is a person that people trusted when they felt unheard. Is this a sign of how the people of West Virginia will be shut out by the Justice Administration?”
Caperton, who is just finishing his second week on the job, also fired Kelley Gillenwater, the DEP’s communications director.
Gillenwater and Radcliff both declined to comment Friday, but their firing was confirmed by DEP sources who asked not to be identified. Under state law, DEP is required to have both an environmental advocate and a public information officer. There was no indication on Friday what Caperton’s timeline is for filling the posts.
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, had also developed a reputation for pushing to make agency officials more response to media requests.Gov. Jim Justice’s administration offered no immediate explanation for the shakeup at 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 immediately return a phone call and, on orders from the governor’s office, has so far declined to speak with the Gazette-Mail.
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 DEP’s complex regulatory system. Early on, the office faced repeated, but unsuccessful, efforts by some Republican lawmakers to eliminate it.