Raleigh, N.C. — Secretary of Environmental Quality Donald van der Vaart plans to take a position in his department's Division of Air Quality in order to avoid being shut out altogether when the administration of Gov.-elect Roy Cooper takes over next week.
Cooper has already informed some at-will employees in outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory's administration that they will be out of a job as of Jan. 1. By taking a demotion to become an environmental regulator, a position he held for 20 years before being named DEQ chief two years ago, van der Vaart will be protected by state personnel laws from being fired by Cooper and his team.
Under van der Vaart's watch, Duke Energy began cleaning up its North Carolina coal ash dumps to comply with a 2014 state law, although environmental groups say DEQ should have required Duke to excavate all of the unlined pits instead of allowing the utility to leave the toxic ash in some and simply cover them.
His department also was involved in a flap last summer over confusing warnings to well owners near coal ash pits. Warnings that well water was unsafe to drink were later rescinded, and when a state toxicologist questioned the all-clear notices, McCrory administration officials accused him of lying under oath. The state's epidemiologist then resigned in support of the toxicologist.
DEQ also sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year over changes to the federal Clean Water Act, and van der Vaart also pushed for changing state law to rein in the solar power industry.