Former DEQ boss Donald van der Vaart: Oblivious (or worse) right to the end

Donald van der Vaart

Here’s a simple premise that conservative ideologues can’t seem to wrap their minds around: Public employees should not work to undermine the mission of the agencies at which they are employed. It seems like a simple and basic enough concept, but time and again we are confronted with people like Donald van der Vaart, for whom such basic ideas remain an intellectual bridge too far.

As Lisa Sorg reported in this space earlier this week, van der Vaart resigned from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality on Wednesday. The departure marked the end of a long career at the agency for van der Vaart — a career that had taken a dramatic and disturbing turn in recent years as van der Vaart became an avid critic of environmental regulation and, in effect, when he was appointed to head the agency by former Governor Pat McCrory in 2015, a powerful flack for polluters. This is from Sorg’s story:

“[A]s secretary, van der Vaart himself politicized the agency first by repositioning it as ‘business-friendly’ — meaning industry could expect more favorable treatment than under previous administrations. Van der Vaart also presided over the ‘do not drink’ letter scandal, in which Tom Reeder, his assistant secretary, pressured the Department of Health and Human Services to withdraw its warnings to well owners whose water may have been contaminated by coal ash. Reeder is now a policy advisor to Sen. Phil Berger.

Van der Vaart also led the charge to sue the EPA over the Clean Power Plan, which would have further cut carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

While it’s common for agency chiefs to support the governor who appointed them, Van der Vaart seemed to take that to an extreme. Even routine media releases sounded like cheerleading for Gov. McCrory. Environmental advocates say they were shut out of any discussions with van der Vaart, leading Molly Diggins of the Sierra Club earlier this year to compare the agency’s ‘intrigue and deception’ to ‘House of Cards.’

Things got even weirder after Roy Cooper took office this year. Van der Vaart took the extraordinary action of demoting himself in order to stay in a position in which he wouldn’t be subject to dismissal on political grounds by Cooper. Then, while in his new position, van der Vaart made nice with the pollution apologists in the Trump administration and penned  an article in a national journal calling for the repeal of an important environmental protection law. At that point, van der Vaart was suspended by his new bosses. Now, finally, he is gone.

Amazingly, van der Vaart appeared to profess indignation and surprise at his demise this week. In a resignation letter, he complained that the Cooper administration was “moving to stifle my contributions to scientific and legal discourse in professional journals.”

To which all a body can say is: Give us a break Don. You are lucky you lasted as long as you did. Setting aside the absurdity of your own manipulation of employment procedures to keep getting paid by taxpayers, it was simply farcical and outrageous for someone whose driving professional mission had become to undermine environmental protection laws to remain employed by an agency that’s supposed to craft and enforce such laws. Having you employed at DEQ at public expense was, in the truest sense of the phrase, like paying the fox to guard the hen house.

In other words, it was, sadly, like about half the appointments of flacks and shysters that Donald Trump  has made in his dreadful administration. And while we may have to put up with this dangerous phenomenon at the federal level for a while longer, North Carolinians have a right to expect that people employed in executive agencies overseen by the current governor will actually believe in and perform the work they’re paid to do.

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