With a new DEQ secretary, environmentalists could have an advocate, not an enemy in state government

With a new DEQ secretary, environmentalists could have an advocate, not an enemy in state government

- in Environment, Featured Articles

It’s been a long, acrimonious and even hostile four years for environmental groups, as well as the press, trying to pry information from the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

But Gov. Roy Cooper has nominated a new secretary, Michael Regan, a former EPA official and regional leader for the Environmental Defense Fund. And environmental advocates hope a new era of openness — a glasnost — will end what the Sierra Club’s Molly Diggins calls the agency’s “intrigue and deception that was like House of Cards.”

 We’re looking forward to transparency, integrity and professionalism,” said Diggins, state director of the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club. “The public trust has been eroded.”

Regan still has to run the steeplechase of a Senate confirmation. (The Senate has not announced when it will begin confirmation hearings.) Conservatives have labeled Regan a “radical,” but the Environmental Defense Fund is actually a mainstream advocacy group. Its members aren’t physically attacking oil rigs. And it teamed with McDonald’s to reduce solid waste.

With his regulatory and advocacy background, if Regan does pass Senate muster, environmental advocates hope, even expect, him to change the tone and effectiveness of the agency. The task could be daunting. Regan would inherit a DEQ that has been demoralized by budget cuts to core scientific, monitoring and enforcement staff. It’s an agency that’s been buffeted by bad press, generated by its former chief, Donald van der Vaart, and assistant secretary Tom Reeder — especially over the coal ash controversy. (And both men are still employed by the agency; to avoid a political firing, van der Vaart demoted himself from secretary to a job in the air quality division.)

It’s a DEQ that for four years took a belligerent attitude toward the EPA. And it’s an agency where political allegiance to the McCrory administration was part of some job descriptions, indicated by the number of press releases that shook the pom-poms for the former governor.

We’re looking toward ending the intimidation of career staff,” Diggins said. “They should be allowed to use their training to do their jobs.”

The previous leadership undermined several of the staff’s scientific conclusions, and not only on coal ash, when the agency leadership and Gov. McCrory influenced the wording of “do not drink” and “do drink” letters. Last year, DEQ higher-ups also retracted a report about the impotence of the SolarBee project on water quality in Jordan Lake. The report, which accidentally wound up online, was revised to soften language about the difficulties in cleaning up the lake.

Number one, we’ll have someone in there who’s an advocated for environmental protection,” said Elaine Chiosso, Haw Riverkeeper and executive director of the Haw River Assembly, “reversing the trend of ‘customer service’” that catered to businesses. “That’s big: considering the impacts on people as opposed to for-profit corporations.”

Improving the culture ad openness of a DEQ 2.0 will be an easier goal to achieve than the financial shortfalls. The legislature largely holds the purse strings, and thus is responsible for the agency’s budgetary cuts. But some of DEQ’s financial straits are of the agency’s own making.

For example, in 2013, the McCrory administration rejected grant money from the EPA, effectively forgoing free money to study the potential impacts of fracking. And in 2015, the agency added legal staff, presumably to fight the EPA over provisions of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, all while cutting to core monitoring and enforcement staff.

As for funding, at least “the governor and the DEQ secretary have a bully pulpit,” Chiosso said.

Cooper also appoints some members of the Environmental Management Commission, a quasi-judicial rule making body with significant power. Of the terms expiring this year, the governor will appoint four of them. That could change the complexion and tone of the EMC, whose leadership has complained about the EPA, regulations and even the legislature. (Only one of 15 EMC members is a woman, certainly a diversity problem.)

Environmental groups each have their respective priorities for the new administration. Chiosso hopes the new secretary can work with the legislature to finally make progress on the Jordan Lake rules. Under pressure from the homebuilders lobby, the legislature has essentially frozen those rules since 2009, as the lake’s water quality has declined.

June Blotnick, executive director of Clean Air Carolina, said her group will advocate for stronger air quality rules and the addition of monitors, especially in the two-thirds of the state where there are none.

Those monitors should be back in place,” Blotnick said. “Removing air quality monitors because the air has improved is shortsighted.”

She also hopes the “small emitter rules,” which essentially allow certain low-level polluters to operate without a permit, will be rolled back. “I’m concerned about the cumulative impacts,” Blotnick said. Catawba County, for example, has 40 such emitters. “That’s not going away.”

Even what appear to be small improvements could make large impacts on the public health. Dee Freeman, who served as DEQ secretary under Gov. Beverly Perdue, added a seat on the air toxics science advisory board for a pediatrician. The thinking was that children metabolize toxics differently than adults, and a specialist’s insight would be valuable to the board. But in the past eight years, no pediatrician has been appointed to that board.

The looming question — and one that is beyond either Cooper’s or Regan’s control — is the future of the EPA. While the EPA has its own deficiencies, Regan, who worked in the air quality and indoor radiation division at the agency, would likely be more cooperative with the federal government. That is, if Donald Trump had not been elected president.

In coordination with Attorney General Josh Stein, Regan still could withdraw from several lawsuits against the EPA over the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States rules. Yet if Trump’s nominee Scott Pruitt is confirmed by the U.S. Senate (van der Vaart sent a statement supporting Pruitt to Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works), he could cripple federal regulations. Pruitt is notoriously anti-regulation, pro-fossil fuel and paradoxically, anti-EPA. Regan, who spent much of his time at EDF promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy, could find himself at odds with Pruitt as EPA chief.

The legislature has inserted language in many of North Carolina’s environmental laws that forbid the state from enacting stricter standards than the federal government. If the EPA regulations are gutted, North Carolina’s could follow.

That’s really scary,” Chiosso said. “The federal standards are the minimum. We don’t want a race to the bottom.”

For the first time since 2013, environmental groups could feel like they have an advocate not an enemy in state government, if not the federal level. “We’ve waited four years for this,” Blotnick said. “We can finally go on offense.”