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The Fayetteville Observer has a fine editorial this morning taking the McCrory administration to task for the latest lame plan to deal with coal ash pollution and the ongoing discharges into our drinking water supplies. As the paper notes, the plan features a loophole the size of a coal fired power plant: it has no deadlines for compliance.

“Duke Energy was caught last year leaking excessive wastewater from its coal-ash ponds into soil and waterways. Duke is negotiating a federal settlement to pay resulting penalties. But the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has found a way to ensure that the company doesn’t violate the law that way again: New permits will make future discharges legal….

…The logic behind DENR’s approach now is to give Duke time to fix these problems. Thinking the company could stop all leaks overnight would be unreasonable. If Duke works toward long-term solutions, DENR can offer permits letting the status quo remain legal temporarily without incurring additional penalties….

Unfortunately, there’s an element missing from DENR’s permitting plan that creates a massive loophole for continued pollution: There’s no timetable for Duke to make progress. That puts DENR’s policy back into the absurd category.

What good is a state agency that just writes permits allowing major polluters to continue doing more of the same indefinitely? Including a wish, even a vague expectation, that Duke will one day mend its ways doesn’t cut it. For Duke’s part, the company has expressed its intent to work toward rapid closure of the coal-ash ponds. If so, that’s great. But it won’t be due to any tough stance from DENR.

As the Southern Environmental Law Center, which sued Duke over coal-ash storage, has noted, DENR’s permit plan includes no interim steps that Duke must take to stay on track. The agency needs to rethink its handling of these permits, and work toward a policy with more teeth for working with Duke and other polluters in the future.”

Of course, what the Observer fails to note is that is that such loopholes are no accident; they are what you get when a once proud environmental protection agency is gradually hollowed out and transformed pursuant to the demands and directives of the state’s biggest corporate polluters.

Commentary

Pat McCrory 4It should probably come as no surprise when a state elects a governor who’s spent most of his adult life in the employ of one of the planet’s biggest polluters and he fails to make environmental protection a top priority. That said, there is something disturbing and notably blatant about the way the McCrory administration continues to wage war on environmental protection and, it would seem, the very idea that government has a role to play in the matter.

The list of disasters implemented over the last few years in the realm of environmental protection in North Carolina is already a long one — the uninspiring leaders appointed, the half-baked responses to the coal ash mess, the retreat on sea-level rise, the failure to take action on climate change, the lack of investments, the rules compromised — but two new announcements this week serve really to pour symbolic salt on the wound and rub it in.

First is the announcement to be unveiled officially today with the Governor’s proposed budget that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is to be: a) re-christened as the “Department of Energy and  Environment” (I’m sure you noticed which word got second billing) and b) further eviscerated with the transfer of the state zoo as well as several museums and parks (and scientists) to the Department of Cultural Resources.

What’s next? Read More

News

When the former Secretary for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources sought a way to boost employee’s morale last summer, his agency ordered up several hundred commemorative coins engraved with both his and the agency’s name.

DENR commemorative coin

DENR commemorative coin

The environmental agency spent $1530 in June buying 500 coins engraved with former DENR Secretary John Skvarla’s name etched on them, in addition to the agency logo and the state seal on the back.

The coins, also referred to as challenge coins, were outdated within a few months.

Skvarla left the agency in December at Gov. Pat McCrory’s behest to lead the N.C. Commerce Department. Donald Van der Vaart, a longtime DENR employee, how heads the state environmental agency.

John Skvarla

Commerce Sec. John Skvarla (formerly DENR)

A number of the coins, but not all, were handed out to DENR employees as a way for Skvarla to recognize exemplary performance, said Drew Elliot, a spokesman for the agency.

Elliot said he did not know how many of the coins remained. N.C. Policy Watch has requested, but not yet received, a copy of a spreadsheet detailing how the coins were distributed under Skvarla’s leadership.

The $1,530 purchase of the coins this June comes as the agency has had to trim many of its programs and lay off environmental regulators in response to deep budget cuts, including 225 jobs lost between 2011 and 2014, according to this February 2014 news article. Some environmental groups say the cuts have left the state unable to protect its natural resources and prevent future disasters like last year’s toxic coal ash spill in the Dan River.

Challenge coins like the ones ordered by DENR are a well-known tradition in the nation’s military branches, as explained in this Mental Floss article. The coins are sometimes handed out by secret handshakes, as they were during a 2011 visit to Afghanistan by then Defense Secretary Robert Gates who passed them out to servicemen and servicewomen.

Probably one of the most popular uses of the coins in the military is to settle up bar tabs.

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News

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.

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Commentary
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.

In case you missed it over your holiday break, Governor Pat McCrory named Don van der Vaart as the new Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources to replace Secretary John Skvarla who is moving over to head the Department of Commerce.

Van der Vaart was serving as Deputy Secretary of DENR and as the state’s first “energy policy adviser” according to a press release from McCrory’s office. That means, according to the release, that van der Vaart “focuses on increasing domestic energy exploration, development and production in North Carolina as well as promoting related economic growth and job creation.”

In other words, the new secretary’s previous job was pushing drilling and fracking  and other industry objectives in a department that’s priority is supposed to be protecting the environment.

And that’s not the most disturbing part of his appointment. Read More