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The coins, also referred to as challenge coins, were outdated within a few months.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

Commentary

If all of the coal ash leaking into the state’s various waterways isn’t enough to get you steamed at the state’s  leadership for eviscerating our environmental regulations and regulators, here’s another story that might put you over the edge — it comes from Dan Besse of the League of Conservation Voters and Charlotte’s public radio station, WFAE. This is from the LCV Monday morning newsletter:

State enforcement of controls on sediment pollution of waterways in North Carolina has dropped dramatically since 2010, according to an analysis by reporters from WFAE radio in Charlotte.

The analysis shows that the number of inspections of construction sites by state inspectors has dropped markedly, and that the frequency with which discovered non-compliance with pollution control rules is cited for violations has been cut as well. Enforcement agency staff acknowledge that their inspection staff has been slashed by the state legislature, from 65 to 40, with more cuts coming.

Sediment – or in lay terms, mud – from construction sites and other activities is one of the most pervasive and problematic causes of water degradation. It fills in reservoirs, buries stream bottom habitat for fish and their food sources, and fouls drinking water sources. Policing the sediment runoff from construction activities in our state is a shared local/state responsibility, critical to the task of protecting water quality.

North Carolina has been a regional leader in that effort since passage of the Sedimentation Control Act of 1973. However, putting adequate resources into the job has always been a challenge. The WFAE study quantifies just how much worse the situation has become in the past four years. Read More

Commentary

As Clayton Henkel reports below, even national news media have taken note of the embarrassingly cozy relationship between Duke Energy and North Carolina’s environmental regulators. Of course, federal prosecutors have too.

If ever there was a time for the state’s governor to signal a new direction and put the public ahead of polluters, now’s the time. An editorial in this morning’s edition of the Wilmington Star News  agrees:

“[Outgoing secretary John] Skvarla insisted from day one that he intended to make the scaled-down Department of Environment and Natural Resources more ‘customer-friendly.’ And it quickly became clear that his definition of ‘customer’ largely meant the corporate and development interests that apply for environmental permits.

But there is another category of customers: the people of North Carolina. Not only do they pay taxes to support the department, but they count on its regulators to protect the environment and public health.”

It concludes this way:

“Questions about the cozy relationship between DENR staff and the businesses they regulate did not originate with this administration; it has been an ongoing issue. Regulators do not have to be unnecessarily obstructionist. There is a lot to be said for streamlining the permit process, providing clarity on the rules and making sure businesses do not face long delays in obtaining permits, assuming their projects meet state standards.

But a regulator’s job is to regulate, not to placate. McCrory says he will cast the net far and wide to find the right person to fill the DENR post, both inside and outside the agency. That person should not only be a strong leader but also understand that the agency’s primary responsibility is to protect the state’s air, water, soil and other natural resources.”

Read the entire piece by clicking here.