Ira Whitman CE’61

Ira Whitman attended Cooper Union and attained a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering in 1961. While a student at Cooper he served as president of Sigma Kappa Tau fraternity, and President of the student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers. His education continued with his earning a Master’s degree in Civil Engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, and a PhD in Environmental Engineering at The Johns Hopkins University. His doctoral thesis examined the environmental impacts to small urban rivers from urban development and suburban growth. He obtained his first of seven Professional Engineering Licenses from the State of New York in 1968.

While working as an Environmental Economist and Project Manager at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus Ohio (1968-1972) his career pathway coincided with the country’s first significant legislation in environmental protection, the first Earth Day which was observed in April 1970, and the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Following a gubernatorial election in Ohio in 1970, Dr. Whitman was asked to serve as a professional advisor to a new Gubernatorial Task Force on the Environment to be headed by former astronaut John Glenn (prior to Col. Glenn becoming a long time U.S. Senator from Ohio). The Task Force, comprised of 50 citizens from throughout Ohio, created a blueprint for the establishment of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency which took place in mid-1972. In July of that year, Governor John J. Gilligan selected Whitman to be the first Director of the Ohio EPA, with responsibility for organizing and staffing that agency and developing the inaugural policies and programs that would enable the agency to meet its legislative mandates and policy objectives. Whitman was sworn in as Ohio’s first EPA director in October 1972, taking office on October 23rd.

Under Federal and state law, in 1972 Ohio EPA had legal responsibility for the following major program and policy jurisdictions:

  • Safe Drinking Water
  • Water Pollution Control and Abatement
  • Surface Water Quality
  • Air Pollution Control and Air Quality Monitoring
  • Solid Waste Management and Regulation

From his experience with the Gubernatorial Task Force on the Environment and the Ohio Department of Health, Whitman concluded that the two most difficult and broad-based challenges to the new agency at the outset would be:

  • Maintaining and upgrading water quality in Lake Erie.
  • Controlling air emissions of Sulfur Oxide pollution resulting from the use of high sulfur content coal by electrical generating stations and other industrial plants throughout Ohio.

Whitman served as Ohio’s representative on the Great Lakes Water Quality Board, created by an international treaty with Canada in 1972. In that capacity he worked closely with representatives from the other 7 Great Lakes states, USEPA, and 9 Canadian Representatives. As the shallowest of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie was heavily burdened by contaminated discharges of pollution from steel and other heavy industries, from broad agricultural areas discharging fertilizers and pesticides, as well as municipal waste treatment facilities in Detroit, Toledo, and Cleveland and many smaller such urban areas. To provide long-lasting improvement in Lake Erie water quality, he restructured Ohio’s program for awarding grants of Federal and state funds for municipal wastewater treatment to provide the highest priority to cities and counties located within the Lake Erie basin, assuring that such grants were awarded quickly and with reduced burdens of red tape.

From the perspective of environmental hazards to human health during the 1970s, by far the greatest danger was posed by unhealthy air caused by discharges of hazardous chemicals from industrial and electric utility coal burning sources. Ohio is a significant coal mining state, and native Ohio coal is among the highest sulfur content coal in the country. While no longer the case, in the 1970s over 90% of electrical energy in the state was generated through the combustion of high sulfur coal mined from within the state. The Ohio EPA, under Dr. Whitman, launched a two-pronged effort to combat the continued rise in Sulfur Dioxide air pollution within the state, a vigorous campaign of public information and regulatory action. In the end, it was the inadequacy of the regulatory statutes, including the Clean Air Act of 1970, that enabled the industry, particularly the electric utility industry, to delay compliance with the clean air standards for decades. Fortunately, the air we breathe today is far more healthy than what was encountered at the time that EPA and its state counterpart agencies were created.

Cartoon drawn by Louis Goodwin of the Columbia Dispatch, illustrating Dr. Whitman ordering polluters to “Clean-Up.”

As Director of Ohio EPA, Dr. Whitman served as the first Chairman of the Ohio Power Siting Commission with jurisdiction over the construction and location of new electrical generation and transmission facilities, including nuclear power plants. He also served on the Great Lakes Basin Commission, the Ohio River Basin Sanitary Commission (ORSANCO), and the Ohio Water Development Authority. Whitman’s term in office ended in 1975 with Governor John Gilligan’s 1974 defeat at the polls in his bid to be re-elected.

Dr. Ira Whitman with Ohio Governor John Gilligan cicra 1975

Following his tenure in state government, Whitman was engaged as a consulting environmental engineer in Ohio and Maryland, and then as president of the consulting firm Princeton Aqua Science in New Brunswick, NJ. Over this 10-year period, events at Love Canal and other serious hazardous waste dump sites changed the course of his professional focus as well as the orbit of the environmental field in general. The new agenda focused on hazardous waste site cleanup, remediation and redevelopment, and terms such as Superfund and “Brownfield Redevelopment” became common elements of the expanded field. New Jersey quickly became a national leader in the field of industrial hazardous waste site cleanup and reuse with the prominence of its unique legislation known as the Environmental Cleanup Responsibility Act, or “ECRA”.

In 1985, Whitman and his wife Audrey founded The Whitman Companies, Inc, consultants in Environmental Engineering and Management, and Dr. Whitman become one of the handful of initial members of the New Jersey ECRA Advisory Committee to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, a group which has maintained its advisory role (under new names) for over 35 years. The company and the site remediation field grew in proportion to one another over the next decade.

As a strong believer in employee-owned professional service companies, the Whitmans set into motion a plan for ownership succession by key employees which became fully executed in 2003, a time at which there were approximately 40 employees. A second internal ownership change took place in 2021, as the company reached its 36th year as an independent employee-owned enterprise. Dr. Whitman remains engaged with the company on a part-time basis, as Principal. His activities include working with clients to meet their regulatory responsibilities in site remediation. He also serves as an expert in cases in litigation for industrial and commercial clients pertaining to hazardous waste sites and to the historical evolution and application of environmental statutes and regulations.

In 1996, Ira Whitman was honored to become the endowed Kappe Lecturer by the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists, of which he has been a member for 45 years. He was invited to speak at a dozen major universities including Penn State, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins. His lectures were on the engineering and redevelopment aspects of restoring and upgrading seriously contaminated industrial sites; i.e. brownfield sites.

Inspired by the example and direction provided by Dr. Abel Wolman, the founder of the Department of Sanitary (Environmental) Engineering at The Johns Hopkins University, Whitman has always taken an active role in relevant professional societies and associations. He chaired the Government Affairs Committee and the Clean Water Act Renewal Committee of the Water Environment Federation (WEF), co-founded by Dr. Wolman in 1929. He also served on the Board of Trustees and Executive Committee of WEF, and in 1996 was awarded the Federation’s first national award in Hazardous Waste Management, and two years later was recognized with an Honorary Membership by WEF. He is a Life Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, in which he has been a member for over 60 years since his student chapter membership at Cooper Union. His daughter Lynne Whitman has a Civil Engineering degree from Columbia University, and his grandson Spencer Golub is entering the freshman Civil Engineering program at The University of Illinois in September 2022.

In 2008, Whitman was presented with the Gano Dunn Award for engineers by The Cooper Union and the Cooper Union Alumni Association.

In 2009, the State of New Jersey created a new professional licensing program for “Licensed Site Remediation Professionals” or LSRPs, for highly trained and experienced practitioners in this field. To license and oversee the professional conduct of the LSRPs, a licensing board was created by the LSRP legislation, and Dr. Whitman was appointed by the Governor of New Jersey to be one of the original members of that Board, starting in 2010. He chaired the Board’s Licensure Committee that oversaw the creation of a professionally developed license examination, and in 2021 became the chairman of the Board’s professional Audit Committee.

In 2012, Whitman became the Technical Advisor to CRISIS, Inc., a community-based citizen group that represents the community point of view and priorities with respect to the cleanup of the massive American Cyanamid Superfund site in Bridgewater and Bound Brook, New Jersey. He worked with CRISIS’ leaders for 7 years to develop and promote the most environmentally safe outcome for the site’s most difficult area of environmental concern, developing a remediation plan ultimately endorsed by both the corporate ownership of the 400-acre site and by USEPA.

In 2017, Dr. Whitman was appointed to the Academic Advisory Committee to the newly created and totally unique Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at The Johns Hopkins University – the only joint health and engineering based academic department in the country. The Advisory Committee is an ABET requirement to maintain the Department’s engineering school accreditation, the department at which he did his graduate studies 50 years previously.

In overviewing his 60-year career in Environmental Engineering, Dr. Whitman is awed by the strong foundation upon which it is built. At The Cooper Union, that foundation will always rest on the shoulders of Peter Cooper and the dedicated faculty that carries out his mission. At The Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Whitman is indebted to Dr. Abel Wolman, world renowned public health engineer who created the Department of Environmental Engineering in the 1930s, and who guided it with a unique level of dignity and purpose; and to his son Dr. M.G. Reds Wolman (Dr. Whitman’s PhD thesis advisor) who chaired an expanded department and who inspired and energized everyone who was fortunate to work with him.