Donald van der Vaart, the former Secretary of the Environment who demoted himself within the agency to save his job, has now resigned from that post.
WBTV first reported the story this evening.
Van der Vaart had been with DEQ in various positions for 23 years.
Van der Vaart, who most recently had been a section chief in the Division of Air Quality since January, was placed on investigative leave in early November, along with his colleague and former chief deputy, John Evans, a supervisor in ambient air monitoring. As Policy Watch reported on Nov. 9, both men had been suspended after co-writing a controversial opinion piece in a September edition of a national environmental law journal that called for the repeal of a key air quality rule. That opinion ran counter to that of the current leadership, including NC Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan.
A DEQ spokesman had previously told Policy Watch that the agency couldn’t comment on the details of van der Vaart’s and Evans’s suspensions, citing personnel laws. Evans remains on suspension.
In his resignation letter, van der Vaart addresses his publication record, noting that while at the agency, he had written some 30 articles for publications. “On some occasions my work was adopted by the department and in other cases it was not,” he wrote to Regan, adding that he had never been informed that DEQ had any issue with his articles.
However, the current administration, van der Vaart wrote, “is moving to stifle my contributions to scientific and legal discourse in professional journals. This is deeply troubling.”
Then later this fall, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt appointed van der Vaart to the agency’s Science Advisory Board. That move also proved contentious because Pruitt had cleaned house at the SAB, ousting scientists and replacing them with representatives of regulated industries and environmental officials from conservative states. That move prompted several Democratic senators to petition the Government Accountability Office to examine the independence of the SAB.
“My selection to a scientific board is also cited by DEQ as indicative of conduct which I should have known is at odds with DEQ with no prior communication or warning,” van der Vaart wrote. “I do not think that any reasonable person would have expected that reaction and I firmly believe that my involvement with the EPA’s scientific advisory board, whose objective is to provide the EPA Administrator with independent scientific advice, is positive for North Carolina and DEQ.”
In 2015, Van der Vaart left a job as section chief in the Division of Air Quality to accept Gov. Pat McCrory’s invitation to become DEQ secretary. (John Skvarla was McCrory’s first DEQ secretary; he was later shifted over to the Department of Commerce.) Van der Vaart wrote that when he became secretary “with the expectation that, as provided by law, I would return to a section chief position when I was no longer secretary. I cannot tell you how many of my colleagues told me how inspired they were to see this path was, indeed, possible. The State has traditionally found it difficult to recruit young people without the added specter of politicization of science and law. Sadly, that specter is now clearly visible.”
However, as 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.”
Van der Vaart closed his letter to Regan by writing: “Nevertheless, I will cherish my time with the Department and will miss all my colleagues who share my passion for protecting the environment.”