The state agency tasked with protecting the environment has been under scathing, near-constant criticism from environmentalists during the tenure of Governor Pat McCrory. The state saw a dramatic political shift with McCrory's 2012 election and the subsequent election of Republican super-majorities to the House and Senate. Since then, lawmakers have rolled back environmental regulations and McCrory redirected what was then known as DENR, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, in a way that emphasized "customer service," or what critics perceive as a business-friendly approach to the industries the agency is supposed to be regulating. That began under former DENR secretary John Skvarla, now McCrory's Secretary of Commerce. And it's continued under the Secretary of the newly-named Department of Environmental Quality, Donald van der Vaart. Van der Vaart has led DEQ since the beginning of last year.
Our interview, which can heard in full above, came on the heels of a meeting with the governor's advisory body on energy, the Energy Policy Council, in which Sec. van der Vaart suggested several changes to the way energy is regulated in North Carolina. Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, Director of Communications for the North Carolina Sierra Club was at the meeting and described it for me in the interview below.
Van der Vaart made several suggestions at the meeting. One would require permits for any new solar farm. North Carolina's solar industry, which is ranked 4th in the nation for solar capacity, recently lost a state tax credit that is partly responsible for its success. Another big driver of solar in the state has been the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard. That's a 2007 law requiring utilities like Duke Energy to produce a percentage of their energy from renewable sources like solar and wind. The law has been targeted for repeal or a freeze in repeated attempts in the last several legislative sessions, so far unsuccessful. But during the Energy Policy Council meeting, Sec. van der Vaart suggested allowing nuclear energy to count towards REPS, raising the concerns of environmental groups and the solar industry that it was losing more support from the state. During the interview with Sec. van der Vaart, I asked him about that meeting and about his support for nuclear energy. He describes it below.
DEQ, and Donald van der Vaart specifically, has also been criticized for his stance on the federal Clean Power Plan. The Environmental Protection Agency rules call for North Carolina to reduce its carbon emissions 32% by the year 2030, but the rules are getting a robust legal challenge from opponents who say they'll be too costly. It's the Obama administration's most ambitious plan for tackling climate change, and could reshape how America gets its energy, moving the country away from polluting energy sources like coal and towards cleaner energy forms like solar and wind. Natural gas will likely be the biggest beneficiary in the short term, thanks to low prices due to a boom in production with the wide adoption of a new effective-yet-controversial drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," that some research indicates leads to polluted drinking water and even earthquakes. In an editorial to the News & Observer of Raleigh, Sec. van der Vaart blasted NC Attorney General Roy Cooper (a Democratic candidate for governor in 2016) for backing the Clean Power Plan. I asked him about the editorial and about his opposition to the EPA regulations.
DEQ has been most visible lately in dealing with the aftermath of Duke Energy's 2014 coal ash spill, which coated 70 miles of the Dan River in toxic sludge and brought the problems of coal ash, and how to safely store and dispose of it, to the nation's attention. Duke Energy was fined more than $100 million by the federal government. DEQ settled with Duke Energy for $7 million, far short of its original $25 million fine for groundwater contamination. That fine was levied for just one coal ash site at the Sutton Plant in Wilmington, but the settlement will make further litigation at any of Duke Energy's 14 sites more difficult. Environmental groups criticized the settlement as too weak and filed their own lawsuit. As for the legislative response to the spill, lawmakers passed the Coal Ash Management Act and required DEQ to rank the 14 sites in terms of severity of risk. Four coal ash sites, including the one in Asheville, have been deemed high-risk, but the others were given lower classifications, meaning less will be required of Duke Energy in terms of clean-up at those sites, at least for now. The Southern Environmental Law Center obtained a document from DEQ that had previously ranked most of the sites as high-risk, which would have cost Duke Energy more to deal with. Secretary van der Vaart criticized the environmental group for publishing something that wasn't meant for the public and says it was based on incomplete data. I asked him about that, and also about a meeting reported on by WRAL in which he and Governor McCrory dined with Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good while the company and the state were tangling over the legal ramifications of the coal ash spill. McCrory worked for Duke Energy for 29 years and has been dogged for much of his tenure by criticisms of being too cozy with his former employer, something he and van der Vaart emphatically deny. That part of the conversation is below.