Politics & Government

NC water committee shakeup follows SolarBee report retraction

A SolarBee unit is transported to Jordan Lake on July 22, 2014.
A SolarBee unit is transported to Jordan Lake on July 22, 2014. cliddy@newsobserver.com

A water quality expert with nearly 40 years of experience was removed from his role as leader of a state water quality committee shortly after questioning the state’s decision to retract a report critical of “SolarBees,” water-churning devices in Jordan Lake that are designed to reduce the impact of algae.

While Steve Tedder suspects the move was political and one of his colleagues has resigned in protest, his superior said it is part of a new policy that aims to install new leaders every two years.

Until recently, Tedder was chairman of the Environmental Management Commission’s Water Quality Committee. The 15-member commission, appointed by the governor and leaders of the Senate and House, is responsible for adopting rules for protecting the state's air and water.

Tedder expressed concern after the Department of Environmental Quality retracted a report on SolarBees that his committee was scheduled to review on March 9. The report found that SolarBees haven’t improved the water quality of Jordan Lake and suggested that their use over the next two years, which would cost the state $1.5 million, wouldn’t make a difference.

SolarBees have been controversial since 2014, when state lawmakers opted to place them in Jordan Lake rather than implement more stringent development restrictions on upstream communities. Environmentalists have argued from the outset that the devices are ineffective at cleaning the lake, which the federal government has deemed impaired.

Jordan Lake provides drinking water to 300,000 Triangle residents. As part of last year’s budget, state lawmakers mandated that the Department of Environmental Quality produce a report on the effectiveness of in-lake water quality improvement methods such as SolarBees by April 1.

But department officials said they couldn’t meet that deadline, saying they retracted the online report because it was an unfinished draft that someone accidentally posted.

On March 10, Tedder asked DEQ officials to note changes to the report when they produce the final version, which has yet to be released.

On March 18, EMC chairman Steve Rowlan emailed DEQ secretary Donald van der Vaart about his plans to remove Tedder from his position as chairman of the Water Quality Committee, which Tedder has led for nearly five years.

“This action if implemented would reassign committee chairs every two years so that no one essentially becomes the ‘ruler’ of a committee,” Rowlan wrote. “I have proposed reassigning the chairs such that Commissioners Tedder and Martin will no longer be chairs.”

Kevin Martin, who Rowlan removed as chairman of the Groundwater and Waste Management Committee, said he disagreed with the move but declined to speculate as to why it happened.

“All I know is he has some new ideas about what he wants to do,” Martin said. “That’s his prerogative. Whether I think it’s a good idea or a bad idea doesn’t factor into anything.”

The move caught environmentalists and the committee chairs off-guard.

“There have been plenty of issues where we’ve disagreed with Mr. Tedder, but there’s nobody on the commission who’s more qualified on the technical details of state and federal water quality rules,” said Grady McCallie, policy director for the N.C. Conservation Network. McCallie has followed the EMC since 2001.

Tedder, a water pollution biologist, worked for DEQ for 37 years before retiring in 2011. He now works as a consultant. He remains on the water quality committee, but will be replaced as chair by Julie Wilsey, director of Wilmington International Airport. He thinks Rowlan is removing him because his opinions frequently conflict with those in DEQ leadership.

“They know I’m not an advocate for in-situ treatment for addressing large lake nutrient issues,” Tedder said, referring to the Bees. “I accepted the appointment from the Senate to use my experience and expertise for the citizens of the state and for protection of our natural resources, not to just follow the leader.”

Rowlan, appointed EMC chairman by Gov. Pat McCrory in January, denies Tedder’s accusation and says he’s keeping Tedder as vice chairman of the committee to continue taking advantage of his expertise.

“It has absolutely nothing to do with performance,” Rowlan said. “I hope the next chairman will raise questions the same way he does.”

Some aren’t buying it.

In protest, Thomas Craven resigned from his role as chairman of the Water Allocation Committee. Craven declined to comment, and Rowlan declined to disclose Craven’s resignation letter because, he said, it disparages him.

Rowlan’s changes to EMC committees suggest he’s trying to “turn the EMC into a rubber stamp” for DEQ actions, said Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, spokesman for the state Sierra Club.

“Commissioner Craven is to be commended for standing up to what seems to be the increasingly power-obsessed leadership at DEQ,” Chicurel-Bayard said. “We hope the new chair of the water quality committee will respect the fact that the committee has called for the Solarbee report to have the changes red-lined and explained.”

Rowlan’s move also caught the attention of state Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson Republican who co-chairs a legislative body that’s scheduled to review the SolarBee report.

“Supposedly it’s a normal sort of thing, but you always wonder because now the new incoming chair doesn’t have any expertise in water issues,” McGrady said.

“Frankly, it’s not a legislative matter. But it is curious,” McGrady continued. “In theory, if you don’t want to have something thoroughly flushed out, put together the committee in a way that the people who have the expertise aren’t there to ask the questions.”

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht