The governorship was a hard-fought victory for Roy Cooper. While he has earned a well-deserved rest, the problems created by the prior administration continue to plague communities across the state, so it’s time for him to get to work. There are some vitally important decisions ahead of him, and while many people will be discussing what his first actions should be, I contend that he must immediately address the leadership at the Department of Environmental Quality.
As a former supervisor at DEQ, I know the good work the agency can do when not suppressed by ideologues. I worked alongside many professional staff and scientists that worked diligently to create an agency that serves all of North Carolina. I have also seen what happens when corporate ideology bleeds into what is supposed to be nonpartisan, nonpolitical agency positions.
Judging from his 100-day plan, President-elect Donald Trump will be no friend to our environment. But most of North Carolinians are. Regardless of our party affiliations, one thing that binds us is our love for the raw beauty of our state. Whether we’re camping with our children in one of our many state parks or fishing in Jordan Lake, whether we’re riding the Blue Ridge Parkway or simply staring at the ocean from the pristine shores of Hatteras, we are deeply tied to the natural treasures of the Tar Heel State.
But the environment is not just important for recreational enjoyment. The health of millions of people depends on having clean drinking water drawn from our rivers, lakes and groundwater, and on having clean air to breathe. Our state’s population continues to grow, which means increasing pressure on our natural resources from more businesses, industries and people.
The DEQ must calculate the pragmatic balance between accommodating that growth and the resiliency of our environment and the health of our people. When the agency approves a permit to pollute the air, land or water, it affects the health of citizens now and well into the future. I’m sure Cooper would agree that those decisions must be based on facts and science, not politics. With that in mind, few decisions are more critical than making sure we have the right leaders at the DEQ.
Under Gov. Pat McCrory, the agency scandalously cast doubt on science and made pariahs out of scientists and career public servants. Leadership second-guessed its own professional staff’s reports, interfered with the recommendations of experts in other departments and knowingly spoke half-truths to the public about the safety of their well water results. It prioritized corporations in its rewrite of the agency’s mission statement. It made sweetheart deals that protected corporate interests instead of community interests.
Most recently, the current head of the DEQ penned a letter to Trump endorsing the president-elect’s pledge to gut the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, lift federal protections of America’s air, waters and lands, and step back from federal oversight of state environmental departments.
This is not leadership that values the people and places of the Old North State. This is not the leadership that North Carolinians voted for. In no uncertain terms, Cooper was elected to clear out the webs of Mc-Cronyism and start anew.
We need men and women of science at the DEQ who are fact-minded, heart-guided and human-centered. We need people who are up to the task of rebuilding the department and regaining the public’s trust. Some will be found within its current staff, folks who have fought quiet battles and done their best to serve the public under the current regime. Find them. Thank them. Empower them.
The DEQ has influence over many aspects of our collective path toward the future. With the right leadership at the agency, the Cooper administration could be the one to make North Carolina not only “First in Flight,” but also first in using sunlight and creating jobs in a clean, sustainable energy economy. It could be the administration that recognizes the conclusive science of a changing climate and strives to not only prepare our state for the future, but also to shrink our carbon footprint.
With the right appointments to the DEQ, the new governor would set the stage for properly cleaning up the 180 million tons of toxic ash that threaten our rivers and drinking water across the state and forcing Duke Energy to stand on its own merit rather than “wink and nod” politics.
Cooper has much work in the days ahead, and I look forward to working with him. Foremost, I urge him to remove the stain McCrory’s administration leaves behind and put in place balanced and knowledgeable leadership at DEQ that values science, our natural resources and the health of all communities across our state, for today and for generations to come.
Amy Adams is the North Carolina Campaign Coordinator with the nonprofit Appalachian Voices.