DEQ spins off "fracking" division

The key to keeping secrets is compartmentalization:

The energy group will be comprised of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality's Energy and N.C. Geological Survey sections of the Energy, Mineral and Land Resources division. Van der Vaart is also creating an energy executive director who will lead the group.

“The governor made it clear from the start of his administration that one of his top priorities is to develop and implement an all-of-the-above energy strategy that fits North Carolina’s needs,” van der Vaart says in a video announcing the plan. “I fully support the governor’s energy initiative and feel very strongly that affordable energy is vital to growing the economy, maintaining good quality of life and bringing us closer to energy independence.”

And yes, when you see the phrase "all-of-the-above" used in reference to energy, it's code for fracking and/or offshore drilling. I think they latched onto the phrase in the hopes renewable energy advocates would be less anti-fracking if they thought it was all one big, happy family, playing together on a level playing field. There is no such thing. And by separating this new division from others at DEQ, their activities will no longer be common knowledge amongst state regulators, some of whom might be a little concerned about water quality and such. From the DEQ's Energy section:

EPA takeover of DEQ's authority a distinct possibility

Stifling the voice of the public is not an acceptable practice:

North Carolina’s recent tactic of blocking citizens from challenging state permits for industrial polluters could result in a federal takeover of the state’s regulatory program. The EPA regional administrator stated that court rulings prohibiting the groups from seeking judicial review of the permits “cast serious doubt” on whether North Carolina meets minimum federal requirements to protect its residents from environmental pollution.

This is the first such warning to North Carolina since the federal government authorized the state to oversee air and water regulation in the 1970s. If the federal government were to follow through, North Carolina would be among a handful of states that have been deemed incapable, or unwilling, to enforce federal anti-pollution laws.

And DEQ's initial and contradictory reactions of denial and deflection simply drive the nails deeper into their casket. On the one hand they claim the EPA "misunderstood" their findings, and needs to be "instructed" on what the law really means. But then the other hand, which can't pass up a political opportunity, tries to pass the blame to Roy Cooper. This illogical, self-defeating type of argument is a product of both hubris and incompetence, a rare combination usually only witnessed on a middle-school playground. Needless to say, they are not the characteristics of an effective regulator.

NC (DEQ) joins lawsuit against EPA Clean Power Plan

And immediately starts spewing industry propaganda:

"This federal overreach presents a clear choice: do you want Washington, D.C., or North Carolina to control energy generation in our state?" North Carolina Secretary of Environmental Quality Donald van der Vaart said in a statement. "We have shown that North Carolina's leadership, not federal intervention, has resulted in reduced emissions, cleaner air and affordable energy. This administration remains committed to protecting ratepayers from expensive and unnecessary federal regulations."

Under the Clean Power Plan, the average utility bill in North Carolina is expected to increase by $434 a year by 2020, state officials said.

They didn't get that number from their own calculations or the EPA, that dollar figure was derived from a painfully flawed industry-funded study:

Coal Ash Wednesday: DENR putting the brakes on cleanup


Citing the costs of remediation as their main concern:

North Carolina’s environment agency asked Tuesday that its own enforcement cases over Duke Energy coal ash practices at 10 power plants be put on hold. “A stay of these proceedings will ensure careful consideration of each of these factors, including the economic impacts of the proposed manner of closure, during the process for approval of closure plans,” DENR’s motions said.

The coal ash law requires that the potential costs to consumers be considered in closing the ponds. Duke’s current cleanup estimate is $3.5 billion and has said it will ask permission to pass costs to customers. DENR cites an earlier estimate of up to $10 billion.

This is a classic Republican-engineered situation: You craft a piece of legislation that sounds good but is embedded with a self-destruct mechanism. In this case, it's the costs associated with doing what must be done. If the GOP had been serious about its concerns for ratepayers, they could have easily fixed that before passing the bill:

DENR Secretary engaging in campaign politics

Joining the GOP bandwagon in viciously attacking Roy Cooper:

In a puzzling move, Cooper is putting his support behind the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which is estimated to cost consumers and businesses $41 billion or more per year. According to Energy Ventures Analysis, the average North Carolina household’s electricity and gas bill would increase by $434 in 2020, a 22 percent hike over current rates. Cooper, in essence, supports the takeover of North Carolina’s energy-generation system.

We do not share Cooper’s belief that the federal EPA is the best guardian of North Carolina’s economic and environmental interests. We prefer to allow North Carolina to continue to build on its significant record of environmental protection.

In this ten paragraph op-ed, van der Vaart references the Attorney General ten times, proving he is more concerned with scoring political points than discussing environmental issues. As to Energy Ventures Analysis, your initial assumption is correct, dear reader. The group has deep ties to the coal industry, something a "scholar" like van der Vaart should have spotted a mile away:

DENR doesn't want expanded water protections

And is suing the EPA to stop them from doing so:

DENR officials said in their lawsuit, filed Monday in a federal court in Georgia, that the new definition could expand the jurisdiction by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers over a significant portion of North Carolina. The move would stifle economic growth with little environmental benefit, they said.

"North Carolina’s water quality programs, many of which go beyond federal requirements, are a model for the nation and have contributed to the steady improvement of the quality of the state’s waters," DENR general counsel Sam Hayes said in a statement.

Really? I guess that's why the Jordan Lake Rules have yet to be implemented, making NC something like ten years late in taking positive steps to improve the impaired status of the reservoir. The bottom line is, when waters flow, they flow into our drinking water system. And since about 60% of our drinking water flows through intermittent streams and other "non-navigable" water systems, we either expand our quality control into those areas or continue to struggle to process enough potable water for our needs. And contrary to the scare tactics employed by ALEC and their agri-business cohorts, farm ponds will not be included in this expansion:

Coal Ash Wednesday: Duke Energy's cozy relationship with DENR

Be careful what questions you ask:

Holleman praises what has happened in South Carolina and says citizen lawsuits brought by the SELC have moved things along there. And he says, there’s another reason why it has not happened here: “The very, very close relationship between the regulator and Duke Energy.”

“That’s insane,” says Tom Reeder an Assistant Secretary at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.”(What would) a career state employee have to gain by entering into some sort of special relationship with Duke? It’s very hurtful when you hear that, actually.”

The answer to your question is contained in the question itself. Thanks to McCrory's liberal use of the "fire at will" policy of exempting DENR supervisors from employment protections, keeping a "career" at DENR viable is now more about politics than professionalism:

GOP cherry-picking data to block wind energy projects

Skvarla's replacement carrying the banner for the fossil fuel industry:

North Carolina’s environment secretary has urged a federal agency not to sell wind energy leases within 24 miles of the state’s coast, a limit that advocates say would largely block wind farms.

Van der Vaart’s letter said the two zones near tourist-heavy Wilmington deserve similar protection. He said studies commissioned by New Jersey found significant declines in tourism when energy projects can be seen from shore.

Here is the study itself, with the relevant impacts to tourism data beginning on page 29. As you can see, their perusal of available literature on wind farms worldwide show minimal negative impacts to tourism, and some areas claiming a massive increase due to the visibility of wind farms. Additional specific (NJ) site polling and projections show a net gain in tourism dollars, but you have to actually finish reading the tourism section before you get to that conclusion. If this is the study to which Van der Vaart is referring, his comment and position reflect either a serious lack of scholarly capabilities, or an intentional desire to misuse data. Or maybe both. But no matter how you look at it, his qualifications as head of DENR are in question.

Mitch Gillespie is afraid of heights

Turns down Asheville job, skulks back to Legislature:

Until this month, Mitch Gillespie had been an assistant secretary overseeing the Department of Environment and Natural Resources' regulatory divisions. Newly appointed DENR Secretary Don van der Vaart had tapped him to become DENR's first "director of regional outreach" in the Asheville regional office.

Instead, he will move back to the legislature to serve as Moore's senior policy adviser for the environment, natural resources, energy and regulatory reform.

I usually defer to environmental orgs who directly interact with state government, when it comes to their opinions about individuals they have to deal with. But I have to disagree with their assessment of Gillespie. He might be congenial, but he has already done massive damage to state protections for the environment, from peeling back regulations to slashing the budget of DENR by 40+%. With friends like that...

Coal Ash Wednesday: "But the bugs are doing just fine!"

The biological trump rule in action:

Aquatic insect communities in an area downstream from the Feb. 2 coal ash spill appear to be thriving, according to the results of testing conducted by state environmental officials.

Using a standard sampling protocol, state scientists collected samples of benthic macroinvertebrate at two locations – one upstream and one downstream of the site of Dan River spill. During the sampling, scientists collect insects and other invertebrates from the river using nets and then record the number and species present in their samples before returning the insects to the river. Scientists can determine much about the health of the river based on the number and type of living species they collect. The populations from the upstream and downstream sites were similar and were considered “Excellent,” which is the highest biological rating available.

This is good news, for one location out of a 70 mile stretch of river, that is. Some of that spilled coal ash is now buried under a few feet of silt, but some of it isn't. I won't go as far as to imply DENR testers located a healthy spot and tested that one, although that wouldn't surprise me. But one sample out of seventy miles doesn't a clean river make. Admittedly, I'm a little out of my depth here, but these folks aren't:


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