Big changes in state environmental agency, with two assistant secretaries out

Scroll down for reaction from environmental advocates. 

The new head of North Carolina’s environmental and natural resources agency has shaken things up in the state agency in his first month on the job, and replaced two top deputies this week.

DENRpicDonald van der Vaart, a longtime DENR employee selected to lead the agency last month by Gov. Pat McCrory, replaced two of the agency’s assistant secretaries – Mitch Gillespie and Brad Ives – and is replacing them, according to a news release from the agency.

Gillespie, a former Republican lawmaker from Marion who joined DENR in 2012, was the assistant secretary for the environment. Ives was the agency’s assistant secretary for natural resources, and worked before his 2012 arrival at the agency at several renewable energy companies. Both earned $119,000 in their jobs.

Tom Reeder, who had headed DENR’s Division of Water Resources , will take Gillespie’s place, and Mary John Pugh will serve in an interim role as the assistant secretary for natural resources, according to a news release from DENR. Pugh was a deputy director at the N.C. Zoo.

“Tom Reeder is an experienced regulator, manager and longtime DENR employee,” van der Vaart said, in a written statement released by the agency. “Tom’s engineering background and extensive regulatory expertise will be an asset in leading DENR’s efforts to provide for clean air, water and land. On the natural resources side, I wish to thank Mary Joan Pugh for taking on this assignment while we initiate a search for the leadership of our natural resource assets.”

Gillespie will move into a new position as a department liaison out of the agency’s Asheville office working as a western outreach director that will work “to strengthen environmental efforts in Western North Carolina and ensure that the concerns of citizens, local governments and the regulated community are being heard.”

Donald van der Vaart, new secretary for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Donald van der Vaart, new secretary for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

His new salary as a Western office director was not immediately available but DENR spokesman Drew Elliot said it would be adjusted to reflect his new role.

Gillespie had come to DENR after spearheading the loosening of multiple environmental regulations when Republicans took control of the state legislature in 2011. As a lawmaker, he once  traced a bull’s eye on his legislative office’s dirty glass focused in on the nearby state environmental agency.

Ives is leaving the agency to “pursue other interests,” the news release stated.

McCrory selected van der Vaart in late December to replace John Skvarla, the former DENR agency head who is now serving as McCrory’s Commerce Secretary. Van der Vaart, who holds a law degree and a doctorate in chemical engineering, had worked for years in DENR’s air quality division, before becoming the agency’s energy policy adviser.

Before taking over as the agency’s secretary, Van Der Vaart authored a letter defending a decision to close a November meeting attended by oil industry representatives about off-shore drilling to the public. Environmental advocates, who were not allowed, objected to being shut out of the meeting.

UPDATE, 4 p.m. The director of the N.C. Sierra Club, Molly Diggins, released the following statement about the leadership changes at DENR.

“The abrupt departure of DENR’s top level managers raises new red flags about DENR’s direction in the second half of the McCrory administration,” Diggins said, according to a written statement from the environmental advocacy group. “We had hoped that, after two years of widespread criticism, the Governor would make changes at DENR that are responsive to public concerns.

“Instead, today’s announcement seems more about internal agency politics than addressing the big issues that DENR will have to tackle in the next two years,” Diggins said.


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