North Carolina environmental chief moves to block his own removal by new governor

The head of the Department of Environmental Quality will stay at the agency, despite an incoming Democratic administration.

Former North Carolina DEQ Sec. Donald van der Vaar CREDIT: NC DEQ
Former North Carolina DEQ Sec. Donald van der Vaar CREDIT: NC DEQ

A top state environmental regulator who has urged Trump to rein in the EPA and has been criticized for his lenient treatment of polluters, stepped down over the holidays — giving himself a staff position that will be protected under the new North Carolina administration.

Donald van der Vaar, former Secretary of the North Carolina State Department of Environmental Quality, will be an environmental program manager, the News and Record (Greensboro, NC) reported, a position that enjoys normal employee protections and is not subject to gubernatorial appointment.

Van der Vaart was appointed as DEQ secretary by Gov. Pat McCrory (R), who failed in his reelection bid in November and will be replaced by former state Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) later this month.

It should come as no surprise that Governor-Elect Cooper did not plan to keep Van der Vaart at the helm of the DEQ.

Under Van der Vaart and McCrory, the agency has been criticized for protecting Duke Energy, the state’s largest utility, where McCrory spent decades of his career. Duke has numerous environmental violation for its storage of coal ash, including ongoing leaks, a massive 2014 spill, and drinking water contamination.

In addition, Van der Vaart has made a name for himself as an opponent of the federal EPA, sending a letter to President-elect Donald Trump in December, calling on him to give states the power to not enforce environmental regulations. (The federal Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act set baseline environmental protections. State agencies are largely tasked with ensuring those regulations are met, although many states have their own laws that go even further.)

Van der Vaart’s letter asked that Trump “return environmental leadership to the states,” “place a moratorium on currently proposed and new federal regulations,” “work with state governors and environmental directors to eliminate federal overreach,” and “end secret policy-making by Washington insiders.”

“It is an indisputable fact that states like North Carolina, have been very successful over the past 30 years implementing programs that protect public health and welfare while providing for robust economic development,” Van der Vaart told Congress at a hearing in 2015.

It does seem clear that under the Trump administration, the EPA’s role will be curtailed. Trump has nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the agency. Pruitt has criticized the EPA for recent regulations on mercury, water quality, and, of course, carbon dioxide. Under his leadership, Oklahoma is party to lawsuits challenging the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the United States rule, and the Mercury rule.

That means state leadership on climate and environmental protections will be even more important in the coming years.

Van der Vaart’s move raises questions about how effective the agency can be, even under new leadership, if it is staffed with people sympathetic to the state’s largest polluters. Van der Vaart attended a meeting with Duke Energy and the governor back in 2015 — a meeting that was never adequately explained (the ethics investigation was dropped) and which took place just before the company received permits for coal ash disposal. He has denied any relationship with the company.

His move also comes as North Carolina is increasingly under fire for circumventing the democratic process. The state has been ordered to hold new elections for 28 state representative seats — more than a quarter of the body — that were found to be gerrymandered by the state Republican Party. While state voters are roughly split between Democrats and Republicans, the latter has a supermajority in the state legislature.

Since Cooper’s election, the state legislature has passed new laws gutting the governor’s power, including reducing the number of political appointees.

Oddly, this is not the first time a North Carolina political appointee has given himself a new job to avoid being sacked, the News and Record reported. Just before McCrory took office, the former director of the state’s Alcohol Law Enforcement moved into a lesser role at the agency. When he was fired four months later, he sued — and the courts reinstated him, with back pay.

The appeals process for that case is ongoing, with the state’s Supreme Court expected to rule shortly on whether he acted appropriately in taking the staff position.