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

Update: DEQ Sec’y Regan says “all legal options” could be used on Chemours

DEQ Secretary Michael Regan (Photo: DEQ)

NCPW reported on the EPA findings earlier today. Read the story and check back for updates.

During a media call today, NC Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan said the state could subpoena Chemours’s company health and scientific studies on the unregulated compounds it’s discharging into the Cape Fear River.

While that data is proprietary and most likely could not be publicly released without a court order, the information could better equip state environmental and health officials to evaluate possible health effects from exposure to emerging chemicals.

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said there are no publicly available scientific studies on these newly discovered perfluorochlorinated compounds, including two known as Nafion byproducts. Without that information, the DHHS toxicologist cannot determine a health goal or standard for them. Absent that information, Cohen said, her department’s recommendation stands: The water is safe to drink.

DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen (Photo: DHHS)

The call was arranged after DEQ and the DHHS announced today that the EPA had analyzed state samples and found that additional and undisclosed chemicals had been found at the Chemours discharge points and in the drinking water at Wilmington’s Sweeney plant. Concentrations of two of those chemicals, known as Nafion byproducts, have not decreased, even while levels of GenX and three other previously unknown compounds have.

House Republicans accused DEQ and the Cooper administration of withholding important information about the new findings. However, Cohen said the EPA “briefed” state officials via a PowerPoint presentation on Monday, but the final report was not received from the federal government until this morning.

Regan said DEQ staff is methodically combing through the 50,000 pages of information that Chemours provided this week as part of the department’s demand for information. After that review is complete, DEQ will know better if a violation has occurred, Regan said. That review will also inform the department’s decision about whether to renew Chemours’s discharge permit, and if so, what restrictions to place on the company. Regan reiterated that if the permit is renewed, Chemours will not be allowed to discharge GenX and any other emerging compounds or contaminants of concern.

DEQ sent a letter to Chemours demanding it immediately provide additional information about the latest findings. Regan said Chemours acknowledged the correspondence and that the company said it would do so “ASAP.”