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Coal Ash, Climate Change, And The Zoo: Challenges Await New DENR Secretary

Donald van der Vaart

From the state zoo to coal ash, from aquariums to climate change, the DENR secretary has plenty to worry about.

“I consider being the Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources the second-toughest job in state government,” says Bill Holman, who served as Secretary of DENR in the early 2000s, under Governor Jim Hunt.

For the record, he says leading the Department of Health and Human Services is the toughest job, but DENR Secretary is a close second.

“It’s challenging because there’s so many different programs, so many different constituencies, and so much conflict,” says Holman.

DENR secretaries manage approximately 4,000 employees, although that number has shrunk as budgets have been cut the last few years. And there’s always the chance of an environmental disaster like a hurricane or a coal ash spill, to keep you on your toes.

Last month, Gov. Pat McCrory appointed Donald van der Vaart to the position. He comes to the top job with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Cambridge in England, a law degree from N.C. Central. He spent nearly two decades in DENR’s Division of Air Quality before becoming the Energy Policy Advisor a year ago.

In that role, van der Vaart has presented numerous times to various groups, including the NC Chamber, the state Energy Policy Council, and the John Locke Foundation. During those appearances, he displays a dry sense of humor and a deep knowledge of the issues, but usually reveals little of his personal opinions.

One exception is on the proposed natural gas pipeline in eastern North Carolina, a partnership between Duke Energy, Dominion, and Piedmont Natural Gas.

“It’s going to be, I think, an exciting opportunity to bring natural gas to eastern North Carolina,” van der Vaart explained to the North Carolina Chamber last September. 

“(It’s) something that North Carolina has sought for a long time. There are a lot of facets it will improve, but it will also allow the continued expansion of our natural gas based electricity generation.”

"Raising Eyebrows"

The new Secretary raised eyebrows when, earlier this month, two top administrators announced they were leaving DENR.

He hasn’t done any lengthy interviews in his month or so on the job, and was not made available to speak to WUNC for this story. So it’s not yet known if he holds the same beliefs as his predecessor.

That man – John Skvarla – became a polarizing figure almost immediately upon his appointment in 2013. He spoke of DENR becoming more “customer-friendly” and he told WRAL-TV there was not a scientific consensus on oil being a finite resource. 

“The Russians, for instance, have always drilled oil as if it’s a renewable resource and so far they haven’t been proven wrong,” Skvarla said. “There’s a lot of different scientific opinion on that.”

New leadership

Many in the environmental community wonder just how different DENR will be under new leadership. About 150 DENR managers have had their job protections removed, and dozens of regulators in the field have been laid off or left their positions.

“We’re seeing a return back to the days of the '70s and '80s as far as having people on the ground,” says George Matthis, who worked at DENR for 35 years and currently runs the River Guardian Foundation.

“Not only to try to keep the environment clean but to be of assistance to business and help them do things the right way.”

One area where growth could occur is in offshore oil exploration; van der Vaart has been a key person in Governor McCrory’s efforts in that area.

The new Secretary has also been critical of the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is looking to further regulate greenhouse gases – or GSGs – through Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act.

“You know I empathize with the EPA in the sense that they’ve been given a mandate by their President to go out and regulate GHGs, but they just found the wrong slot here in 111,” van der Vaart told the State Energy Policy Council last summer.

Of course, van der Vaart will be expected to carry out the mandates that come his way.

“Most likely, his position will not be any different than what we’ve already seen from this administration, which is a little bit troubling, in several ways,” says Matthis. “But I do believe Mr. van der Vaart will listen more to staff than the previous secretary did, so hopefully that will keep us out of trouble somewhat.”

Colleagues who have worked with van der Vaart point to his intelligence and depth of knowledge, as well as his sense of humor and his affinity for golf – even recalling how he’d sometimes practice putting in his old DENR office.

Now that he has a new – and bigger – office, van der Vaart will need those kinds of stress relievers more than ever, as he takes on one of the most challenging and divisive jobs in all of state government.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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