State environmental officials ask Trump to do less on the environment

The head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality wants states to choose which laws to enforce.

A contractor with the Environmental Protection Agency labels water samples from the Dan River as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash in Eden, N.C. in 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome
A contractor with the Environmental Protection Agency labels water samples from the Dan River as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash in Eden, N.C. in 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome

The head of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality sent a letter to President-elect Donald Trump last week, asking him to rein in the Environmental Protection Agency.

The letter requests 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.

“By returning responsibility for implementing these laws to the states, your administration can avoid the agenda-driven federal regulatory process that has stifled our country’s competitiveness,” North Carolina’s Donald van der Vaart writes.

But in most states — including North Carolina — the state agency is tasked with enforcing regulations that fall under the federal Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

“I don’t even understand where Mr. van der Vaart is coming from,” Mary Maclean Asbill, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), told ThinkProgress. “Certainly in North Carolina, our state agency has the delegated authority to implement the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act… all of the big, heavy environmental laws.”

The Nixon-era laws were created largely because state law was not stringent enough to protect the nation’s air and water — and because a state-by-state environmental regulatory system can create a “race to the bottom,” as polluting companies relocate to the places that will ask them to do the least on environmental protection. If the state fails to adequately enforce the federal laws, then civil groups, such as SELC, can sue under federal law.

In past years, SELC has exercised its right to federal action, suing Duke Energy, the state’s largest utility, for violations of the Clean Water Act related to dumping or spilling coal ash into North Carolina’s waterways, after the state failed to hold the company accountable.

Van der Vaart rejects, though, what he sees as EPA overreach. He has testified before Congress against both the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States rule, two of the Obama administration’s biggest environmental regulations. The Clean Power Plan would require states to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector, and the Waters of the United States rule uses new scientific data to protect waterways that are attached to drinking water sources for one out of three U.S. residents.

“It’s this whole mantra of federal overreach,” Asbill said about van der Vaart’s letter. “It’s just his rabble-rousing call.”

The letter — written on North Carolina letterhead, which Asbill called “mortifying” — was also signed by the heads of state environmental agencies from Alabama, Nebraska, North Dakota, and West Virginia.

State environmental agencies across the country, including in Alabama, West Virginia, and North Carolina, have had their budgets cut dramatically in recent years — making the federal environmental laws that much more important.

“Our state agency has just been hit and hit and hit,” Asbill said. “For the past few years we have been working harder in federal courts and with the federal agencies.”

Under the upcoming Trump administration, though, groups like SELC may find fewer friends in Washington.

Trump has pledged to “dismantle” the EPA.

“It does appear that we are going to have to retool,” Asbill said. “Environmental laws that we have all counted on since the 1970s will be rolled back or frozen, if you will, and we will have to work more with the state agency.”