State Politics

New DENR head Donald van der Vaart charts recovery from cuts, coal ash, loss of confidence

Donald van der Vaart, the new head of North Carolina’s environmental protection agency, stood before a hotel meeting room full of business leaders last week and said he was different from his predecessor, the sometimes blustery John Skvarla.

Skvarla, who now runs the Commerce Department, “is clearly a world-class, CEO-type guy,” van der Vaart said. “He rejuvenated a culture at DENR to be customer-friendly. Some have interpreted that to mean more one-sided than I thought it was.”

Six-feet-two with a quiet, unassuming voice – signifying a change in tone if not direction – van der Vaart said he represented “a change of the guard” at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

“I’m a guy who is a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy,” van der Vaart told the 120 assembled at the N.C. Chamber event, “a salt of the earth, grunt regulatory type of guy. I mean that in a good way.”

Business interests and environmentalists will be closely watching the agency under van der Vaart’s reign to see how he steers it past two years of controversy.

Substantial layoffs and cuts to environmental protections and streamlined regulations were followed by the massive coal ash spill into the Dan River a year ago, and the ensuing political and public relations damage, which included an ongoing federal criminal investigation.

Some environmentalists and some DENR employees were wary of Skvarla before he even started, because of his promised shake-up at the agency. He quickly became a lightning rod for criticism for the state’s failure to clean up coal ash pollution.

Van der Vaart, who took over the agency Jan. 1, presents himself as a tempered version of Skvarla. He says that, like Skvarla, he believes DENR’s role is to help the economy as much as protect the environment.

Without committing to specifics, van der Vaart says he wants to strike a balance between environmental and business interests.

“I’ve been asked: Am I anti-regulations?” van der Vaart told the Chamber audience. “The answer is there are plenty of regulations that need to be written. There are plenty of regulations that need to be enforced. And there are plenty of regulations that are obsolete.

“Of course the regulations we issue are clearly written and often unambiguous,” he said with a straight face – to much laughter from the crowd.

Foot in both worlds

Last year Skvarla reached deep into the ranks of longtime DENR employees to elevate van der Vaart, 57, from a midlevel air-quality supervisor position to be his deputy secretary and energy policy adviser. Van der Vaart, who as secretary makes $129,000 a year, also worked in the private sector and in academia, with a doctorate in chemical engineering and a law degree.

His apparent ease in a roomful of regulators and regulated comes from his experience with both.

He spent 20 years working for the very agency that Skvarla once excoriated as “North Carolina’s No. 1 obstacle of resistance.” Gary Salamido, the state chamber’s lobbyist, says van der Vaart and some of his colleagues were not part of the problem.

“It was an agency a whole lot more interested in regulating than in working out things with folks,” Salamido said in an interview. “He was always the exception to that rule.”

A registered Republican, van der Vaart over the years has made small political donations to various Republicans, including $400 to Pat McCrory’s unsuccessful run for governor in 2008. In May 2012, he contributed the maximum $4,000 to elect McCrory.

In an interview, Van der Vaart says climate change is a reality and humans have a role in it. But he says he is concerned that current scientific models don’t accurately predict global warming trends. He favors more research and caution when making policy decisions based on what we know now. The group Climate Science Watch has expressed concern that similar points of view give the misimpression that climate change isn’t an urgent problem.

He also defends the agency’s response to coal ash, arguing that attorneys for environmental organizations misleadingly claimed DENR’s enforcement of water quality laws was lax. He contends this was the first administration to confront the problem, and he disputes environmentalists’ claim that the agency only did so under threat of lawsuits.

“For that to somehow be twisted so that – notwithstanding this is the first administration, probably in the country, that decided to take a holistic approach at coal ash – somehow was blamed, if not for causing it, at least being lethargic, was very stunning and very disappointing.”

Restoring public trust

Former DENR employees in touch with those who still work there say the staff has been bruised by accusations of lax enforcement on the one hand and, on the other, of being overly aggressive.

“Maybe new leadership will allow them to do their jobs a little more efficiently and not have to look over their shoulders all the time, worried about who’s getting ready to demote them or remove their job responsibilities if they don’t line up with the ideology of the administration,” said George Matthis, who left at the end of 2011 after a 32-year career at DENR working in water quality.

Matthis, who now heads a river conservation foundation, said the department also has to restore trust with the public. “They need to understand that DENR is looking out for the public,” he said. “That has slipped the last two years.”

Robin Smith, who retired at the end of 2012 as an assistant secretary in the agency and now practices environmental law, discounts the conflict between regulators and the regulated as just part of the process.

“I think the narrative about DENR being too heavy-handed was always overplayed,” she said. “The department staff always tried to work with business and industry but also had an obligation to carry out state and federal laws and rules that inevitably create some tensions.”

A bigger concern, she said, is years of budget cuts, layoffs and program reductions that have been going on since before McCrory took office.

“It’s difficult to see how the department is going to meet all of its obligations well, given those cuts and new workload associated, particularly, with coal ash legislation.”

Van der Vaart says all the controversies swirling around him will not change his focus.

“Distractions are distracting,” he said. “For me, I stick to the process.”

News researcher David Raynor contributed