Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Donald van der Vaart. Official DEQ portrait.
Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Donald van der Vaart. Official DEQ portrait.


DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart raises national profile as indications emerge he’s getting a look from Trump’s transition team.

By Catherine Clabby

As speculation grows that he might be asked to join the administration of President-elect Donald Trump, North Carolina’s top environmental official is very vocally supporting Trump’s agenda to prune back federal regulations.

Donald van der Vaart last week co-signed a letter with environmental leaders in four states urging Trump to pursue goals stated during his campaign to abandon Obama administration initiatives that would expand regulation of coal-fired power plants and U.S. waterways.

The previous week van der Vaart published a column in The Hill, a Washington D.C. newspaper, calling Myron Ebell “perfectly suited to the lead the transition to a new EPA.” A skeptic that industrial emissions are driving global warming, Ebell is leading Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition team.

This comes as Washington, DC conservative insider Phil Kerpen on Friday announced on Twitter he’s been told that van der Vaart, along with Ebell and one other, are finalists to lead Trump’s redesigned EPA. Kerpen founded American Commitment, a conservative organization that advocates for policies promoting reduced regulation of markets.

In an article published Friday by the conservative Carolina Journal, van der Vaart said only this about interest in him from the Trump transition team: “What I’ve been instructed to say is you need to ask the Trump campaign that question.”

A new leader

Van der Vaart, who could not be reached on Sunday, has a doctorate in chemical engineering and is a lawyer who has been this state’s DEQ secretary since January 2015. Prior to being appointed a DEQ deputy secretary and energy policy advisor in 2014, he held mid-level positions in DEQ, program manager and engineering supervisor, dating back to the late 1990s.

Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Donald van der Vaart. Official DEQ portrait.
Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Donald van der Vaart. Official DEQ portrait.

In the mid 1990s he was a manager of environmental services  at Carolina Power & Light, and was active in securing government permits for the power company’s coal-fired power plants.

Since being appointed DEQ secretary, van der Vaart has helped voice Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s arguments against the EPA’s clean power plan rules and its Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rules. He did the same in his co-authored letter to the president elect.

“Many environmental improvements have occurred since the EPA was created; however, in recent years the EPA has run out of control,” said last week’s letter signed by environmental agency leaders from Alabama, Nebraska, North Dakota and West Virginia as well as this state.

“The EPA has systematically taken discretion away from the states and has become a symbol of federal overreach. It is time to return to the cooperative federalism that Congress intended when writing fundamental environmental laws.”

Taking aim at rules

The clean power plan rules would require power companies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by improving power plant efficiency and by expanding use of natural gas and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. The water rules would widen the number of open waters explicitly subject to federal protection under the Clean Water Act.

The EPA says climate change resulting from global warming produced by growing amounts of carbon dioxide released into Earth’s atmosphere pose multiple health hazards. These include increased risk of heat-related deaths, extreme weather (including drought) and ozone production, which can cause respiratory problems.

“The power plan would be expensive and shut down energy plants that have not yet been paid for, thereby stranding those costs with ratepayers. It would harm the industrial sector by significantly increasing electricity rates, which would throttle manufacturing industries that require low energy prices to compete,” van der Vaart wrote in his opinion piece published in The Hill.

The water rules are intended to protect streams and wetlands feeding rivers, lakes, and coastal water that can be sources of drinking water and habitats for fish, including shellfish, which people consume. In his column, van der Vaart said the expanded regulation is unnecessary and sounded additional warnings about the cost to businesses.

“Our nation’s agricultural industry would be hamstrung by costly and unnecessary land use restrictions, which would stifle growth opportunities,” he wrote. “The expansion of manufacturing, commercial and residential development would be left to federal bureaucrats.”

Regulations in crosshairs

Responding to legal challenges from multiple states, including North Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court has stayed a rollout of the clean power plan until lawsuits can proceed. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the clean water rule, also in response to lawsuits.

Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat who is leading McCrory in the still-unsettled vote count in the governor’s race, refused to participate in the McCrory administration court challenges to the EPA rules. Cooper has said North Carolina should comply with federal rules and meet the needs of state citizens and businesses.

Van Der Vaart Letter to Trump Re EPA (Text)

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Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...