Going, going, gone: DEQ Secretary Michael Regan announces big leadership changes

The Assistant Secretary of the Environment Tom Reeder is out, as are four other key leaders at the NC Department of Environmental Quality, according to an announcement made by DEQ Secretary Michael Regan today.

Retired Col. John Nicholson

  • Retired Col. John A. Nicholson has been named the chief deputy secretary, replacing John Evans. Nicholson served 28 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including seven months in Afghanistan, and was the military affairs advisor to Govs. Beverly Perdue and Pat McCrory. Nicholson has advanced energy efficiency and environmental conservation initiatives while in the military, according to the press release. Nicholson’s special projects will include those dealing with the environment and the military; that could put him in a key position to negotiate the placement of onshore wind farms in eastern North Carolina.
  • Sheila Holman has been promoted to assistant secretary for the environment, replacing Reeder, whose controversial tenure included wielding his influence over reversing the do not drink orders for well owners near coal ash basins.
    Holman has worked for nearly 30 years in the federal and state air quality, including the last six years leading the state Division of Air Quality. Holman’s job description is broad. She will oversee major policy initiatives, including permitting of discharges to surface waters; issuance of air emissions permits, permitting of coastal development; and regulation of animal operations — crucial considering the EPA’s latest criticism of DEQ’s handling of swine waste lagoons.
  • Mike Abraczinskas, who has worked much of his career as an environmental engineer with DEQ, will serve as the acting director for the N.C. Division of Air Quality.
  • Bill F. Lane will serve as DEQ’s general counsel, replacing Sam Hayes. He will supervise the rulemaking coordination process and provide advice on new policy initiatives, legislation, contracts, conflicts of interest and dispute resolution.
  • Andy Miller has been named the department’s legislative affairs director. Miller has managed legislative functions for two N.C. House representatives, including Brian Turner, a Democrat from Buncombe County. Miller’s job is to work with the General Assembly on environmental legislation and coordinate DEQ’s periodic reports to the General Assembly. Miller replaces Mollie Young.
  • After 14 years as a public information officer for DEQ, Jamie Kritzer has been named acting deputy secretary for public affairs. Kritzer replaces Stephanie Hawco.

Gov. Cooper names Michael Regan, former EPA, Environmental Defense Fund to lead NCDEQ

Michael Regan, nominee for Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality. He is originally from Goldsboro.

As soon as Michael Regan spoke at the governor’s mansion today, it became clear that he is the antithesis of Donald van der Vaart.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s choice to lead the state Department of Environmental Quality, Regan was softspoken, yet confident. In contrast, as DEQ secretary, van der Vaart exerted his authority through a domineering, even defensive persona. Both men do have expertise in air quality: Regan worked for 10 years at the EPA in that division. Meanwhile, van der Vaart, who aspires to work at the EPA, last week demoted himself back to a section chief in DEQ’s air quality division as a way to avoid being fired as political appointee.

But the similarities end there. Regan is a clean energy proponent, having spent eight years as the National Director of Energy Efficiency Southeast Climate & Energy Policy at the Environmental Defense Fund (where he also worked as Southeast regional director).

Van der Vaart sued the EPA (yes, the very agency he wants to work for) over the Clean Power Plan. If enacted, the CPP would help reduce greenhouse gases through tighter federal regulations on coal-fired power plants. In 2012, while Regan was at EDF, the group and three other nonprofits sued Duke Energy over air pollution permits; as a result, Duke and the groups, who were represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, reached a settlement agreement. Duke Energy retired old-coal-fired units that lacked modern pollution controls.

Van der Vaart consistently positioned the agency as “business-friendly.” That philosophy often translated into streamlined permitting processes and laxer regulations in the name of economic development. Regan, though, views a clean environment — and its attendant regulations — as an economic engine. He is from Goldsboro in eastern North Carolina, an area that is both economically and environmentally fragile. “We cherish clean, air and water,” Regan told the press at a media event at the Governor’s Mansion today. “That goes hand in hand with economic development.”

On a blog posted to the EDF site last February, Regan discussed how clean energy and energy efficiency can tackle rural poverty and environmental justice in eastern North Carolina,  through partnerships with rural electrical cooperatives and minority communities.

Now Regan must be confirmed by the state Senate, a political obstacle unprecedented in recent history. Although the state constitution authorizes the senate to confirm a governor’s appointments, lawmakers have not invoked that power in recent history. Only during last month’s special session, when all manner of political chicanery occurred, did conservative lawmakers announce they would put Cooper’s appointees through the wringer.

“My first goal is to look at the men and women who serve in DEQ. There’s a lot of expertise and passion, and I want to get their advice,” Regan said, adding that he would contact the legislative leadership. “I also want to work on transparency.”

Cooper said that he was not concerned about the Senate’s reaction to Regan’s work experience with the Environmental Defense Fund. “I want to appoint the very best people to serve and those who can bring people together,” Cooper said.

To keep DEQ and other agencies operating until the confirmations are complete, Cooper has asked several people to be “caretaker supervisors” of several departments. Bill Ross , director of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, will oversee DEQ; he was the department secretary from 2001 to 2009, when the state enacted the Clean Smokestacks Act, largely credited for the state’s air quality improvements.

If Regan is confirmed, he would be the second African-American DEQ secretary. Howard Lee held that post from 1977 to 1981.

Jane Preyer, senior director of EDF, praised Regan’s work, saying in a prepared statement that he “will deliver pragmatic, science-based guidance to Governor Cooper as his administration works to protect our environment and boost our economy. His expertise and highly collaborative leadership style has earned him the respect of communities, businesses and government agencies. He will be a strong advocate for the clean air, clean water and clean energy our state must have for a prosperous future.”

Under new administrator Regan, EPA closes loophole on toxic PFAS

EPA Administrator Michael Regan (Photo: EPA)

Manufacturers of perfluorinated compounds, also known as PFAS, will no longer be allowed to use a special exemption that allowed hundreds of these toxic substances to be fast tracked into the marketplace.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced yesterday that the agency is closing the “low-volume” loophole. It allowed industries that agreed to limit their manufacture of chemicals, including PFAS, to no more than 22 tons per year to request a shortened 30-day scientific review instead of the traditional 90 days.

The Environmental Defense Fund recently analyzed applications for these exemptions and found that under the Trump administration the EPA allowed 15 of 24 PFAS into the marketplace under expedited review; another application was “conditionally granted.”

The Environmental Working Group said 490 PFAS compounds have received exemptions since 2000. One hundred and seven were denied.

“It’s good news that the EPA has closed this loophole, which has allowed too many new PFAS into commerce without adequate safety reviews,” said EWG Senior Scientist David Andrews, Ph.D.

Clean Cape Fear, Earth Justice, Advance Carolina and other community groups had filed a petition requesting the EPA close the loophole.

The list of serious health problems linked to PFAS continues to grow: Thyroid disorders, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, kidney, testicular, prostate and ovarian cancers; low-birth weight, high blood pressure during pregnancy, decreased fertility in both men and women, and high cholesterol.

“We’re glad to see the administrator continues to make PFAS a priority, and we ultimately need a whole of government approach to PFAS that includes the Department of Defense, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration, not just the EPA,” said Scott Faber, the Environmental Working Group’s senior vice president for government affairs.

Regan also announced he is establishing a new council on PFAS, composed of senior leadership within the EPA. In a memo to top officials within the EPA, Regan wrote that the work of the council is to “advance new science, develop … policies and regulations … and engage with affected states, tribes and communities.” Regan cautioned that the council would supplement other work by the EPA on PFAS.

Among other initiatives under the Biden Administration, the EPA has begun to develop a national primary drinking water regulation and to solicit data on PFAS in wastewater discharges. These discharges are important because wastewater is discharged from municipal treatment plants, and some industrial facilities, into waterways. Although the wastewater is treated beforehand, traditional methods don’t remove PFAS.

Regan, former secretary of the NC Department of Environmental Quality, said in a press release that “Coming from North Carolina, I’ve seen first-hand how devastating these chemicals can be for communities and the need for strong EPA leadership. That’s why today, I am calling on our senior leadership to form a new Council that will identify pragmatic approaches that deliver critical protections to the American public. As one of my top priorities as administrator, EPA will prioritize partnerships and collaboration with our federal, state, tribal and local partners, and engage the public about the risk associated with these chemicals.”

North Carolina’s Regan approved by Senate environment panel as EPA chief

As investigation inches closer to Trump, Michael Cohen sentenced to three years in prison

Donald Trump speaking

President Donald Trump

By this point, we would imagine the president is hearing footsteps behind him.

Of course, it’s difficult to put yourself in Donald Trump’s size 12 loafers, as it seems increasingly clear that he’s been implicated in at least a pair of campaign finance violations. But today’s news out of a New York courtroom indicates that our toxic tycoon is legally and politically imperiled as he watches the investigations march ever closer to his office.

From Politico today:

A contrite Michael Cohen on Wednesday received three years in prison for a series of tax fraud and lying charges, sending another former Donald Trump associate to jail.

Cohen’s sentence is not as large as the four-plus years that federal prosecutors in New York wanted, but it nonetheless stands out as the biggest punishment to date tied to special counsel Robert Mueller’s sprawling investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The sentence also puts a coda on the dramatic downfall for the 52-year-old longtime Trump lawyer who served in the president’s inner circle as recently as this spring but turned on the man he declared he’d “take a bullet for” soon after FBI agents raided his home, office and hotel room.

In the courtroom Wednesday, Cohen, wearing a black suit and blue tie, was visibly emotional. His eyes were red rimmed and at various points he broke down, his voice cracking while he read a prepared statement he had printed out.

“Today is the day that I am getting my freedom back,” Cohen told U.S. District Court Judge William Pauley, a Bill Clinton appointee who minutes later handed down the prison sentence. “I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the day that I accepted the offer to work for a real estate mogul whose business acumen that I deeply admired.”

In addition to the prison time, which is scheduled to begin with his surrender to federal authorities on March 6, Cohen will have to forfeit $500,000 in assets and pay $1.393 million in restitution.

Cohen, who has had a relationship with Trump dating back a dozen years, used his time before the court to hit back at the president’s recent declaration that his former attorney was “weak.” Cohen said he agreed with Trump’s assessment but noted his “weakness was a blind loyalty to Donald Trump.”

“Time and time again I felt it as my duty to cover up his dirty deeds,” Cohen said, standing before his whole family in the courtroom. Both his mother and father cried at points during the hearing.

Minutes after Cohen learned his fate in court, Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani took a swing at the president’s former attorney by noting the size of his sentence compared to others in the special counsel’s 19-month old investigation.

“This is the real criminal sentence,” Giuliani told POLITICO. “I have no idea if it’s the right one or not, but I do know he’s proven to be a consummate liar who has lied at all stages of his situation.”

Cohen earlier this summer pleaded guilty with New York prosecutors to a slate of eight charges of tax evasion, financial fraud and campaign finance violations. Trump himself was implicated in the campaign finance crimes, with prosecutors saying he directed Trump in hush money payments designed to sway the 2016 presidential election. Cohen also later pleaded guilty with Mueller in November to lying to Congress about work he did during the election on an aborted Trump Tower project in Russia.

The judge on Wednesday slapped Cohen with a $50,000 fine for lying to Congress in the special counsel’s case, explaining that the penalty was meant “to recognize the gravity of the harm of lying to Congress in matters of national importance.” Two months of his three-year sentence are also tied to the lying-to-lawmakers charge.

Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen

Trump’s legal picture is growing inexorably darker as the White House considers its search for a new chief of staff. North Carolina Congressman Mark Meadows is reportedly among the frontrunners for the dubious distinction.

Whether or not federal lawmakers consider the alleged campaign finance crimes to be an impeachable offense is clearly up for debate, but it seems likely that the president’s legal troubles may soon come to a head.

More from Politico:

Although Cohen’s sentence is the largest handed down to date for anyone targeted in Mueller’s probe, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is expected to receive far more time in prison. The longtime GOP lobbyist will learn his fate early next year from a pair of federal judges and is likely spending decades in prison following his conviction earlier this summer on bank and tax fraud charges in Virginia and a separate guilty plea in Washington.

Legal experts said Cohen’s three-year jail term isn’t a surprise for someone who has admitted guilt and helped prosecutors advance their cases.

“It is a fair and reasonable sentence that punishes him and sends a message to others who are considering committing similar crimes,” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor from Miami.

Cohen’s conviction and sentence also doesn’t bode well for the president, said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a frequent Trump golf partner who in January will become chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Anytime a former lawyer of yours goes to jail it’s probably not a good day,” the South Carolina senator said.