Coal Ash Issue

Quiet now for DENR’s Skvarla, but storms loom

A year ago, I went to see John Skvarla, the newly appointed secretary of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. On Jan. 31, I went back to see how the year treated the former businessman-turned-novice-regulator.

It’s notable that I found him still there. I expected his notions about better customer service for permit-seekers and his doubts about global warming to have landed him in an environmental regulatory blow-up by now. But he’s so far avoided the kind of fiascoes that have marked the tenure of Secretary Aldona Wos of the Department of Health and Human Services. Skvarla’s friendly manner and wily instincts have served him well. But it’s early yet, and trouble is brewing.

Just days before I spoke with the DENR secretary, a broken pipe in a waste-treatment plant spewed 3.5 million gallons of untreated wastewater into the Haw River. A few days later, a broken pipe under a coal ash storage pond owned by Duke Energy dumped 82,000 tons of ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River, lining the riverbed with ash that includes toxic metals.

Ironically, a broken pipe was the metaphor Skvarla used to describe his and the rest of the McCrory administration’s first task. The pipe represents government operations, and it is wastefully leaking tax dollars. It’s the favorite subject of McCroryites – fixing a broken government system.

“What I have learned in the past year is that operations of this state government were so badly broken that we should be ashamed of ourselves,” he said. Then he launched into the pipe metaphor. “No one has ever inspected the pipe, and there’s a giant hole in it. Let’s fix the hole in the pipeline,” he said.

Soon after the secretary was with the governor examining the effects of a real broken pipeline and what a coal ash spill can do to the environment. Maybe it helped him see that what matters most isn’t squeezing regulatory costs, but making sure there are enough inspections and regulations to prevent big spills and other forms of pollution.

Skvarla is a great believer in positive attitude, which leaves him puzzled by DENR employees who don’t like the way he has refocused their mission to take the hassle out of permitting and to be sensitive to the needs of companies. They also are suspicious of his move to reorganize the agency and the way employees are evaluated in light of his customer service mantra. There was grumbling when he sent a memo to employees urging them to “smile, be happy, have fun and enjoy the process.”

Skvarla gets animated about DENR employees who won’t get with the program.

“Listen, we can be happy, we can have fun, we can enjoy the process or we can live in East Berlin. Who was it that wanted to tear down the wall in East Berlin, the East Germans or the West Germans? You want to be an East Berliner? Go ahead. I choose to be a West Berliner, and I want the sun to shine and I want to be happy.”

Skvarla says there is no morale problem at DENR, but maybe there’s an internal Cold War.

Despite his entreaties to employees, Skvarla isn’t always sunny. He writes letters to the editor responding to critical editorials and op-ed articles. He says he reaches out to the environmental community, but he’s critical of some advocacy groups.

“They raise money because they are very loud and proud, and they pay themselves salaries,” he said. “Now, how can they raise money unless they make me the devil?”

But it may not be his critics who make him unpopular. It’s likely to be his decisions. Skvarla endorsed an idea to put off rules limiting pollutants in the Jordan Lake watershed. Instead, he supports a plan to use floating stirring machines to reduce the buildup of harmful algae.

Other issues loom as the state develops rules for hydraulic fracturing and tries to limit an upcoming EPA rule covering power plant carbon emissions.

Major disputes may also come as DENR announces the results of its review of rules ordered by the General Assembly. The review will cover 4,500 DENR rules, including 400 that concern water quality. Skvarla indicated there will be substantial pruning.

“What’s going to get thrown out is the stuff that’s ridiculous and never should have been there in the first place,” he said. “We are going to strengthen the ones that need to be strengthened, and we are going to, ah, fine-tune the ones that need to be fine-tuned. That’s a pretty rational process for anybody’s business.”

Protecting the environment is not a business. But Skvarla thinks business principles apply. And he sees no conflict between protecting the environment and helping permit-seekers through “the maze” of regulations.

“I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive,” he said. “Everybody assumed when I got here because I had a pro-growth proclivity that I was going to have to sacrifice the environment to get there. Why?”

North Carolina and Skvarla may soon find out whether a regulator can both protect the environment and spur the economy.

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