Senate committee holds hostile confirmation hearing for Cooper DEQ nominee

Senate committee holds hostile confirmation hearing for Cooper DEQ nominee

- in Environment, Top Story
Dionne Delli-Gatti, nominee for DEQ Secretary. (Screenshot from Senate committee hearing)

And it’s not over; hearing for Dionne Delli-Gatti be continued.

Not until Minute 100 of a 120-minute confirmation hearing for Secretary of the Environment nominee Dionne Delli-Gatti did any lawmaker speak the words “environmental justice.”

Even then, the context for the comment was not one of concern for communities of color and low-income neighborhoods who are disproportionately burdened by polluting industries. Instead, Sen. Norm Sanderson (R-Carteret, Craven and Pamlico), asked Delli-Gatti how she defined the term. “It’s so broad, it can touch about every [environmental] permit,” Sanderson said.

That indeed, is the point of environmental justice. 

Delli-Gatti apparently learned the art of diplomacy from her time as a congressional liaison for the EPA Region 4 office and as director of Southeast Climate and Energy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “It’s the consideration that no specific group, based on race or economics or other distinguishing characteristics can be disproportionately impacted,” she said. “We can’t intentionally or unintentionally burden a specific sector of the population. It can be challenging because there aren’t clear pathways in our laws about how we consider environmental justice. But under Title VI we have to consider it.”

In other words, Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is not just a good idea. It’s the law. 

The Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee on Tuesday grilled Delli-Gatti, nominated to the post by the governor, more aggressively than her predecessor, Michael Regan, who recently became U.S. EPA administrator. Her hearing, which after two hours, was continued to another day, felt like rugby. By comparison, Regan’s hour-long hearing in 2017 was a beer league softball game.

Republican committee members were fixated on how DEQ would address permitting for natural gas and swine waste-to-energy projects. 

“What’s your position on natural gas?” asked Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus and Union) . “Do you think it should be phased out?”

“We don’t have an official position,” Delli-Gatti replied. “We evaluate each permit on its merits. The need for natural gas is under the North Carolina Utilities Commission.”

Newton would have been aware of the distinction; he used to work for Duke Energy. 

“How about you personally?”

“We need to be thoughtful to see what the generation mix is,” Delli-Gatti replied. “We are seeing a lot of commitments from companies to go to net-zero carbon. As we progress, it’s yet to be seen what the best mix is. I don’t have a categorical view of ‘no natural gas.’”

Gov. Cooper’s Clean Energy Plan calls for 70% reductions in state government carbon emissions by 2030 and net-zero by 2050, compared with 2005 levels. However, net zero is not absolute zero; the emissions can still occur but must be offset or mitigated. Methane often slips through the net-zero loophole even though it’s a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Nonetheless, Sen. Newton seemed skeptical that it’s a goal worth pursuing. “It’s going to cost money to get there,” he said.

“Yes, there’s also a cost to not doing it,” Delli-Gatti replied.

A native of New Carlisle, Ohio, Delli-Gatti served in the Air Force and holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in environmental science. Her experience includes a stint at the Ohio EPA and the City of Dallas, as well as an environmental specialist at the consulting firm Turner Collie & Braden, Inc. “I’ve been the regulator and the regulated,” Delli-Gatti said in her opening remarks.

While energy is her strong point, Delli-Gatti also emphasized the need for DEQ to rein in emerging compounds — PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane, among them — that are widespread in public and private drinking water supplies. 

She also said DEQ needs to provide grants and technical expertise to the more than 100 “distressed utilities,” those whose operating margins are so thin or nonexistent that they can’t maintain or upgrade their water treatment or wastewater treatment systems. This can translate to a public health and environmental threat if untreated sewage enters the waterways and if the utilities can’t meet the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

In addition to the climate crisis, DEQ faces enormous challenges on multiple fronts, including the relentless and competing political pressures in regulating and permitting mines, landfills, swine gas operations and asphalt plants. 

There are Superfund sites in flood-prone zones, unregulated and gigantic poultry operations contributing to toxic algae blooms in waterways. There are unlined landfills leaking in Black communities, toxic compounds seeping beneath Latinx neighborhoods, wood pellet plants emitting air pollution in Native American areas. Even wealthier and middle-class white neighborhoods are not immune; a massive Colonial Pipeline gasoline spill (the largest in U.S. history since 1997) occurred last year in the suburban Mecklenburg County town of Huntersville.

Yet, Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Duplin, Johnston and Sampson), who owns and runs a large farming company and wields significant power over DEQ as a main budget writer, continued to hammer home his desire to streamline the biogas permitting process, to give agribusiness nearly carte blanche approval to operate.

“It’s unacceptable to have this industry on hold,” Jackson said.

And then there was Georgia.

“What bothered me the most is your association with the Georgia Riverkeepers,” Jackson said, referring to Delli-Gatti’s previous position on the group’s board. The national organization of which which hundreds of locally based riverkeepers are a part, Waterkeeper Alliance, is often at odds with agribusiness over pollution into streams, rivers and drinking water supplies.

What Jackson apparently didn’t realize is that Delli-Gatti’s riverkeeper work did not deal with CAFOs, or agriculture at all. “We were focused on sewers in Atlanta,” she said. “That’s a very different consideration.”

A second committee hearing for Delli-Gatti’s confirmation has not been scheduled.