Who derailed Dionne Delli-Gatti’s confirmation as DEQ Secretary? No one wants to own it.

Dionne Delli-Gatti at her legislative committee confirmation hearing on April 27. (Screenshot from livestream)

Dionne Delli-Gatti waited outside the gallery entrance of the Senate Chamber Thursday afternoon to learn whether she would still have a job by the end of the day. 

She carried a keychain that her 8-year-old son had given her earlier this year after Gov. Roy Cooper nominated her to lead the NC Department of Environmental Quality, one of the state’s most complex agencies. 

The keychain read “No. 1 Secretary.”

But her position as the first woman to lead the department was in doubt. On Wednesday, the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment committee had voted down her nomination, a move without modern precedent. Since 2016, when Republican legislators passed a law requiring the Senate to confirm the governor’s nominees, the chamber has done so for 16 consecutive cabinet-level positions — until now.

At both that committee hearing and during Thursday’s Senate floor debate, Republican Sens. Paul Newton and Chuck Edwards led the charge against her nomination. They claimed Delli-Gatti was “disqualified” because she “couldn’t articulate the governor’s energy policy” and wasn’t familiar with the details of the MVP Southgate natural gas pipeline project. 

To Democratic lawmakers, that felt like a stretch.

“I urge you to reject this disingenuous process and stand up for what is right,” said Sen. DeAndrea Salvador, a Mecklenburg County Democrat during the full Senate debate. “Ousting a qualified woman from a position she already holds — something else is going on. It doesn’t add up.”

Why Delli-Gatti attracted the ire of the Republican leadership is unknown. Her initial confirmation hearing happened on April 27, and there were no followup meetings. Senate Democrats have said publicly they were blindsided by the news that Delli-Gatti’s confirmation was in doubt.

Two weeks ago, the Senate Energy Committee, with Newton again running the show, received testimony from Duke Energy, Dominion Energy and the American Petroleum Institute about what they view as North Carolina’s need for more natural gas pipelines. Transco is the main provider but if a cyberattack or other disaster should shut down that line, it could create an energy emergency in North Carolina, they testified.

Oddly, Delli-Gatti “wasn’t invited to participate” in that hearing, as Sen. Michael Garrett, a Guilford County Democrat pointed out during the Senate debate.

“When you vote today you are voting to fire a female veteran and the first woman to lead this department and by all standards is eminently qualified,” Garrett said.

And the reason Delli-Gatti didn’t “articulate the governor’s energy position,” said Sen. Julie Mayfield, a Buncombe County Democrat, is because Cooper has not articulated it himself.

“If the governor has not expressed a position on natural gas, is it fair to expect her to know what that position is, given that it doesn’t exist?” Mayfield said.

Chief Deputy Secretary John Nicholson is the new interim secretary for the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

Over the last day, Democrats have engaged in amateur sleuthing to flush out who had tanked the governor’s choice. Shortly after Wednesday’s committee vote recommending against her confirmation, Duke Energy released a statement supporting Delli-Gatti. By evening, Dominion Energy had done the same. 

Legislative sources told Policy Watch that the NC Chamber of Commerce, Smithfield Foods and the NC Pork Council were not responsible for the confirmation derailment.

That left few options: Either another powerful natural gas company put its invisible finger on the scale or Sen. Newton and several of his colleagues had gone rogue, as one source told Policy Watch, “to send a message.”

Theresa Kostrzewa, a lobbyist for EquiTrans Midstream, a major partner in the MVP Southgate project, told Policy Watch that the company did not oppose the nomination. “They were shocked,” Kostrzewa said of her clients. (She also represents Smithfield Foods; the company did not oppose the nomination, either, she said.) Read more

As NC lawmakers fast-track legislation prohibiting ransomware payments, federal officials focus on pipeline shutdown, future attacks

If you have waited in line this week to buy gas for your vehicle, you should be familiar with how damaging a ransomware threat can be.

In the case of Colonial Pipeline, a weekend ransomware attack forced the company to shutdown its pipeline sparking panic-buying and concerns about future cyberattacks.

House Bill 813 introduced earlier this month would prohibit any state agency or local government from communicating with or submitting a payment to an entity that has engaged in a cybersecurity threat.

Rep. Harry Warren said the bill sponsored by Rep. Jason Saine was right on the mark.

(Saine’s home county faced a ransomeware attack in 2019 that took the sheriff’s office website offline.)

Rep. George Cleveland (R-Onslow)

“It also clarifies consulting and reporting requirements to the Department of Information Technology. It’s very timely,” said Warren (R-Rowan) in presenting the bill.

Rep. George Cleveland (R-Onslow) questioned whether the bill should include additional requirements.

“Something that struck me with our present problem with the fuel was that Colonial Pipeline never reported anything to the feds,” Cleveland said. “Would it be appropriate or beneficial to indicate in the bill that the feds should be notified of any cybersecurity problems?”

Legislative staff said private industry were encouraged to do that but not required.

House Bill 813 quickly passed the State Government and House Rules committees Wednesday, moving on to the full House.

In Washington, D.C., Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and EPA Administrator Michael Regan also addressed the current cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline.

Sec. Buttigieg said the Biden administration is actively working to reduce the impact of the gas shortage.

Waivers and emergency declarations will be used to help move fuel more easily to where it is needed.

“Ten states can use existing federal disaster declarations that are currently in place to issue permits that allow drivers to temporarily carry additional gasoline that would ordinarily exceed existing weight limits on federal highways in their states,” said Buttigieg. “This decision provides them with the added flexibility to move fuel more efficiently.”

EPA Administrator Michael Regan

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said additional waivers from his agency will allow reformulated gasoline to be used in 12 states to ease the supply shortage.

Regan, a North Carolina native, also urged the public to do their part to ease the gas crunch.

“The folks should follow the advice of the governors and attorneys general. They are asking folks not to panic, not to hoard gasoline, and to watch for updates. We’re working very hard to alleviate these circumstances,” said Regan.

Colonial Pipeline, that delivers roughly 45% of the gas to the East Coast, announced late Wednesday that it had restarted the pipeline and supply would improve in the coming days.

Buttigieg said the nation must invest in infrastructure resiliency that can withstand future cyber threats.

“This is not an extra, this is not a luxury, this is option. This has to be core to how we secure our critical infrastructure and that includes infrastructure that is not owned and operated by the federal government.”

Gov. Cooper nominates Dionne Delli-Gatti, another EDF alum, to lead Department of Environmental Quality

Dionne Delli-Gatti (Photo: Environmental Defense Fund)

This is a developing story.

Dionne Delli-Gatti, who previously worked as for the Environmental Defense Fund, is Gov. Roy Cooper’s pick to head the NC Department of Environmental Quality, his office announced today.

Delli-Gatti was EDF’s director of Regulatory and Legislative Affairs and Southeast Climate and Clean Energy Initiatives. Former DEQ Secretary Michael Regan, now on his way to becoming EPA administrator, had also worked for EDF, focusing on clean energy.

According to her EDF bio, Delli-Gatti “focused on maintaining North Carolina’s position as a clean energy leader and on promoting clean energy goals in other southeastern states. Their emphasis is on advanced energy solutions that create jobs, attract investors, reduce pollution, and provide affordable and reliable power to the region.”

Delli-Gatti’s areas of expertise include energy policy, government affairs, and environmental justice.

She also serves on the board of directors for nonprofit Advanced Energy and the advocacy group the North Carolina Conservation Network. She has earned multiple recognitions from the USEPA, including three EPA Bronze Medals for her work to address water quality, indoor air quality, and coal ash pollution, and an EPA Notable Achievement Award for efforts to ensure protection of vulnerable communities.

In 2019, Delli-Gatti posted a commentary on the EDF website that addressed the dual issues of environmental justice and clean energy.

“North Carolina must tailor climate solutions for a just transition to a zero-carbon future,” she wrote. “It’s critical that strategies are crafted to not inadvertently burden front line communities by simply swapping environmental concerns for economic ones. We support DEQ’s recommendations to address equitable access and energy affordability, especially as they pertain to low-income and energy burdened communities that have historically been disproportionately impacted by electric power generation.”

Her nomination must pass through legislative committee before going to the full state senate for approval.

New faces at the legislature: Q&A with State Sen. Sarah Crawford

Editor’s note: Policy Watch sent a questionnaire to all new state lawmakers about their plans for their first legislative session. Their unedited responses will be published as the questionnaires come in. First, up State Sen. Sarah Crawford, a Democrat representing Franklin and parts of Wake counties.

Name: Sarah Crawford

District: Senate District 18

Occupation: CEO, Tammy Lynn Center for Developmental Disabilities

Lives in: Raleigh

Previous elected offices? N/A

Contact information: [email protected]
300 N. Salisbury St, Raleigh, NC 27603

What do you think will be the biggest issue at the legislature this year?

There are many challenges that the legislature will be facing this year. One of the biggest issues will be continuing to navigate the public health challenges related to COVID-19, equitable distribution of the vaccine, and support for individuals and businesses that have been impacted economically by the pandemic.

This is also a redistricting year, and we will be working to ensure a fair process with fair maps and representation heading into 2022.   

What’s a specific campaign promise that you’d like to deliver on?

Even before COVID-19, there were hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians without necessary healthcare coverage. I have been a champion for Medicaid expansion; however, with the make-up of the legislature, it remains to be seen what might be able to be accomplished on Medicaid expansion specifically. Regardless, it is necessary to find a bipartisan solution to secure adequate healthcare coverage to North Carolinians that have an even greater need for it today.

I am also committed to supporting public education from preschool to higher education, specifically focusing on our community colleges and ensuring North Carolinians have affordable opportunities to obtain higher education by minimizing barriers to degree and certificate attainment.

Do you anticipate another round of state COVID relief funding? If so, what should the amount be?

In addition to North Carolina’s allocation of the federal stimulus package that was passed at the end of 2020, I do anticipate North Carolina will consider additional state COVID relief funding and am working closely with colleagues on this.

What groups should be prioritized for relief funding?

We have to do everything we can to support North Carolinians who have been hardest hit during this pandemic. We know that many businesses and educational institutions have additional COVID-related expenses and several organizations and businesses have also experience loss of income due to COVID. We have to ensure that we invest in high-speed internet access, which was an issue prior to the pandemic and has had a light shown on the inequity of broadband access across the state.

The pandemic has revealed the weaknesses in support systems for people in need. This includes social services, health care, rural broadband, unemployment benefits, and more. What needs fixed most urgently and how — not just during a pandemic, but permanently?

All of these services are tied to each other. First and foremost, it’s important that each North Carolinian has the healthcare coverage available to be able to receive quality care. It’s time we stop partisan politics and expand Medicaid, which would bring access to health care to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians.

In regard to broadband, some people have the luxury of working from home; however, even before the pandemic, the internet is a tool most of us use every day not just to connect with one another but to pay our bills, work, and now, it’s used for students to receive an education. Broadband is a critical service and should be treated like other utilities such as electricity or phone service.

And finally, our social services and unemployment benefits have been providing necessary and critical support to North Carolinians during this difficult time. We must continue making investments in these services, expand unemployment to levels before Republicans gutted unemployment in the last decade.

Do you support Medicaid expansion? Why or why not?

I do support Medicaid expansion. The Republican-led legislature has repeatedly refused billions of dollars to extend healthcare coverage to more than 500,000 North Carolinians through Medicaid expansion. This has cost the state $6 billion and countless jobs.The need for Medicaid expansion has only grown during the pandemic. From my experience at Tammy Lynn Center, I have seen firsthand the important role that this needed coverage plays in providing families the care they need and deserve.

Is the state’s funding for public education enough? Why or Why not? If you believe funding is insufficient, what budgetary amount would you recommend and how should the money be used?

North Carolina has a constitutional responsibility to provide a sound education for every child in the state.  We know that North Carolina’s public schools are not adequately funded.  The WestEd Report’s Action Plan for North Carolina details recommendations for meeting our responsibility to provide a sound, basic education for all, which will require additional funding and a more equitable distribution of resources to meet the needs of student populations. Additionally, with the pandemic, teachers and other school personnel are frontline, essential workers and need to be paid as the professionals that they are.

What can the legislature do to help students recover/catch up from learning loss during the pandemic?

Not knowing when we may be able to return to the classroom safely, we need to further invest in the equitable distribution of remote learning devices as well as increased access to broadband. The pandemic has served to highlight areas in which we have educational disparities. Students of color are more likely to be learning online and are less likely to have access to devices or consistent internet.In addition to investing in remote learning technologies now, we must also look ahead at the equitable distribution of resources so that those who are likely to have experienced a greater loss of learning are able to recover more quickly.

DEQ’s budget and staffing has been deeply cut over the past 10 years, which has affected environmental protection, particularly in terms of inspections and enforcement. How should this be remedied?

DEQ must be adequately staffed and funded to respond to requests from the regulated community, and to ensure that polluters are held accountable for violating environmental laws. 

There has been no meaningful legislation passed to address the widespread PFAS, including GenX, contamination of drinking water. What legislation would you support to address the contamination? (This could include clean ups, source control and stiffer penalties.)

I support strong water quality laws.Included in that, it should be noted that local governments are also important partners in environmental protection, able to craft protections that are responsive to the needs of their own geography and communities.Yet, in recent years, the state has severely limited the capacity of local governments to adopt restrictions that are more stringent than state law, including measures designed to protect drinking water from fracking. Additionally, we need to repeal the Hardison Amendments that prevent the state from passing laws that are more stringent than the federal government’s.

Communities of color are particularly hard-hit not only by COVID-19 but by environmental degradation and pollution. What legislation would you sponsor and/or support to address the racial, ethnic and income disparities in environmental protection? 

Governor Cooper along with DEQ Secretary Michael Regan have formed the Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board to ensure the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.  This is important step in the right direction ad it will be critical for the legislature to heed the legislative recommendations of the board and ensure adequate and equitable distribution of funds to support communities of color.

Ousted from DEQ, John Evans, an opponent of regulation, lands job at EPA writing air quality rules

John Evans (File photo: DEQ)

John Evans, former Chief Deputy Secretary of the NC Department of Environmental Quality, has spent much of his career opposing tighter air regulations. Now he has a new job: Writing air quality rules for the EPA.

Evans recently started working at the EPA office in Research Triangle Park, according to two people familiar with the position. Evans is listed in the staff directory.

A rule writer is a key position within EPA. Evans works in a section that writes Clean Air Act rules for forestry, food and agriculture. The section’s official name is Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, Sector Policy and Programs Division, Natural Resources Group.

The Natural Resources Group writes air rules governing a range of industries and uses, including pesticide applications,  pulp and paper manufacturing, and facilities that make wood preservatives, vegetable oil, even nutritional yeast.

Evans joins the EPA at an auspicious time for those who oppose tighter regulations. Under the Trump administration, the EPA is quickly gutting rules, more than 100 so far, according to The New York Times. Of those rollbacks, 27 govern air pollution. That includes a rule proposed last year that would reduce the area of pesticide application buffer zones, a regulation that falls under the Natural Resources Group.

Currently, pesticide applicators must stop their work if someone enters the buffer, also known as an Agricultural Exclusion Zone. By reducing the area of the zone, more people — farmworkers, nearby residents and passersby — could be legally exposed to these chemicals.

Evans is professionally qualified for the job, having served as an air quality supervisor, general counsel and chief deputy secretary for the NC Department of Environmental Quality. But he has consistently — and publicly — called for weaker air quality regulations, especially in his opinion pieces that appeared in professional law journals.

Evans worked in DEQ’s air division before his ascension to a top rung of the department. Former Gov. Pat McCrory had appointed Donald van der Vaart as Secretary of the Environment in 2015; in turn, van der Vaart named Evans as his chief deputy.

During their tenure, the agency became more vocal in its anti-regulatory, pro-business stance. DEQ sued the EPA over the Clean Power Plan and clashed with the Obama administration about the PSD rules. Van der Vaart was in charge when the EPA disapproved of North Carolina’s implementation plan for those rules, as they related to emitters of fine particulate matter. That pollution, known as PM 2.5, is important because it burrows into the lungs and can cause or worsen respiratory illnesses.

DEQ unsuccessfully challenged the EPA’s disapproval in court, and ultimately had to change its plan.

When the governor’s office changed hands in 2017, van der Vaart and Evans could have been ousted because they were political appointees. To stay employed, van der Vaart demoted himself — and Evans — to section chiefs within the air division. They were responsible for overseeing monitoring, permitting and enforcement staff within their respective sections.

It was in those roles that, as Policy Watch reported in late 2017, Evans and van der Vaart co-authored a controversial article in the Environmental Law Reporter  They wrote a seven-page opinion piece calling for the repeal of a core tenet of the Clean Air Act, known as PSD, or Prevention of Significant Deterioration.

The intention of PSD regulations is to prevent major polluters from eluding stricter emissions rules by moving into areas where the air is relatively clean. The industries could then sully the air in their new locations.

While the men acknowledged in a easy-to-miss disclaimer that their views didn’t reflect that of DEQ, their bylines prominently carried their respective titles. The article’s anti-regulatory stance not only clashed with those of the new DEQ leadership, but also appeared to flout its authority.

The new DEQ Secretary, Michael Regan, placed both van der Vaart and Evans on administrative leave. They later resigned. Van der Vaart now is a senior fellow at the conservative John Locke Foundation. He also sits on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, an appointee of former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt.

Van der Vaart was also appointed by Sen. Phil Berger to the state’s Environmental Management Commission, which approves the rules enforced by DEQ.