To stave off an imminent firing by incoming Governor Roy Cooper, NC Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Donald van der Vaart has demoted himself to a position in the air quality division, according to The News & Observer. As secretary, van der Vaart is a political appointee, and thus serves at the pleasure of the governor. When Cooper takes office on Jan. 1, many employees — generally political appointees that are exempt from state personnel protections — will be out of a job.
What is uncertain is how van der Vaart, who as secretary was an unabashed cheerleader for McCrory, will fare in a Cooper administration. For example, in August 2015, Van der Vaart wrote an op-ed in The N&O criticizing Cooper in his role as attorney general over the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Van der Vaart and the McCrory administration had sued the EPA over the proposal, calling federal regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants “overreach.” As with other controversial litigation, such as House Bill 2, Cooper chose not to represent the state in that suit.
And in a letter to president-elect Donald Trump –– essentially a cover letter for a job in that administration, which has yet to materialize — van der Vaart all but called for a radical defanging of the EPA and its regulations. Under his watch, DEQ has become more vocal in its anti-regulatory, pro-business stance. In 2015, the EPA scolded the department for failing to include citizen input in its administration of environmental laws.
Van der Vaart also led the department during two major controversies: one over language in health advisories to well owners whose water might have been contaminated by coal ash; and another over allegations that DEQ tried to intimidate citizens’ groups seeking redress over contamination from hog farms.
Since van der Vaart’s ascension to secretary, many (but not all) of DEQ’s public affairs staff have been combative with the media, often demanding that reporters recast sentences or parse words, not for factual reasons but for political ones. Environmental groups have fared worse, even being labeled as “left-wing extremists” by Mike Rusher, communications director for environmental protection.
Van der Vaart has been secretary since 2015, when then- Gov. Pat McCrory named him to the post, replacing John Skvarla. (Skvarla is now commerce secretary, at least until Jan. 1, presuming he doesn’t demote himself.) Van der Vaart previously worked in air quality and then as deputy secretary.