Last month, in his final days as secretary of North Carolina’s environmental quality office, Donald R. van der Vaart penned an op-ed in support of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s nomination for administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. At a confirmation hearing last week, Senate Democrats grilled Pruitt over his record of siding with polluters and suing the EPA to block a long list of air and water protections, but Republicans submitted van der Vaart’s op-ed as evidence that the regulatory community is behind President Trump’s nominee.
Never miss another story
Get the news you want, delivered to your inbox every day.
The Republicans were perhaps unaware that the EPA had just called out van der Vaart’s agency for failing to protect communities of color from awful odors and swarms of flies generated by waste pits full of urine and feces at industrial pig farms. On January 12, the EPA’s civil rights office, which is tasked with protecting low-income communities and communities of color, sent a letter to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) expressing “deep concern” about the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, where swine waste is stored in massive, open air lagoons before being sprayed across fields.
Neighboring residents, who tend to be Black, Latino and Native American, report large swarms of flies and an “overpowering stench” that permeates “homes, cars and clothing” and causes them to gag and vomit. Local advocates said CAFO operators harass and intimidate them for documenting pollution and submitting complaints to the DEQ, and the EPA fears the department’s failure to respond “lends to the hostile environment” that emboldens facility owners. Residents no longer hold family and church events outdoors, choosing instead to stay inside with the windows shuttered. Gardens are left untended due to fear of contaminated vegetables. An EPA investigation of alleged racial discrimination is ongoing.
Back in Washington, the debate over Pruitt’s nomination has environmentalists across the spectrum shaking their heads. In contrast to Trump’s repeated calls to abolish the EPA, Pruitt assured skeptical Democrats that he would further the agency’s “critical mission” of protecting air and water. To the delight of Republicans, he promised cooperation between federal regulators and individual states, rather than “job killing” federal mandates. States would be encouraged to work together to deal with pollution crossing state lines, with the EPA as a “partner.” Obama-era regulations aimed at reducing toxic air and water pollutants such as mercury — the same rules that Pruitt relentlessly challenged in court — would be rolled back, and state agencies like van der Vaart’s DEQ would become “frontline” enforcers.
Van der Vaart became secretary of the North Carolina DEQ in early 2015 at the height of former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration. McCrory is a former Duke Energy employee and was under intense scrutiny for the state’s response to a 39,000 ton coal ash spill from one of Duke’s reservoirs of power plant waste. The 2014 spill choked the Dan River with toxic sludge for 70 miles and threatened drinking water for thousands of people.
In the years following the spill, McCrory vetoed legislation that would have created an oversight commission for Duke’s 30 coal ash pits in the state. Meanwhile, a scandal erupted after state health officials working under van der Vaart and McCrory rescinded “do not drink” letters advising residents living near Duke power about drinking their well water. State health officials testified under oath that the advisories deliberately downplayed the dangers of hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen associated with coal ash. In 2016, the DEQ reduced fines for the Dan River spill from $25 million to $6 million after negotiating with Duke Energy.
Despite the tense political atmosphere, van der Vaart came out swinging, and his conservative views quickly made him a polarizing figure. He stumped for nuclear energy and expressed doubts about renewables, such as wind and solar farms. He lashed out at the EPA for establishing federal rules requiring fossil fuel companies meet lower pollution targets, which he views as threats to affordable energy. The DEQ even joined some of the same lawsuits against EPA regulations that Pruitt signed onto, arguing that the Obama administration had no business deciding what’s best for North Carolina’s environment and economy.
The EPA was on van der Vaart’s back as well. Last May, the EPA sent a letter to van der Vaart criticizing his agency for failing to come down on repeat violators of the Clean Air Act and issuing only minimal fines when it did enforce the law. The EPA blamed the DEQ’s poor performance on state cutbacks and policies aimed at making it easier for polluters to resolve pollution disputes informally.
Liberal environmentalists and Democrats point to North Carolina as proof that we need a strong federal agency enforcing environmental laws. Polluting industries wield a lot of power at the state level, especially when they are big employers. State legislatures can’t change federal environmental standards themselves, but they can make pro-industry appointments and slash budgets and staff at state agencies, making enforcement difficult. For states suffering from pollution from other states, or for people who live near stinky hog CAFOs, the EPA can provide recourse when state agencies fail.
The debate over the EPA falls along both state and partisan lines. Republicans on the committee considering Pruitt’s nomination come from states that, like Pruitt’s, take up large swaths of the country’s interior and generate pollution that drifts elsewhere. The committee’s Democrats, on the other hand, largely hail from the Northeastern and West Coast states, where environmental enforcement tends to be stronger but does little to stop pollution that crosses state lines and disrupts the climate. Conservative arguments about “states’ rights” quickly fall apart because borders cannot confine pollution and climate disruption, as Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware pointed out during Pruitt’s hearing.
“As governor of Delaware, even if I had eliminated every source of air pollution within our state by stopping every combustion source and ordering every motor vehicle off of our roads, Delawareans still would have faced deadly doses of air pollution,” Carper said. “Should children and others in Delaware really be forced to live with the consequences of decisions made by polluters hundreds — or even thousands — of miles from us?”
Of course, the debate is not just about federalism. It’s about using the power of government to incentivize investment in pollution-reduction tools and move utilities away from dirtier fuels like coal. It’s about bills introduced by House Republicans that could undermine air and water standards we take for granted by requiring regulators to prioritize lowering costs to polluters when enforcing them. It’s about one administration taking modest steps toward mitigating climate disruption and another reversing course to preserve certain profit margins.
Democrats say EPA rules can spur growth in new sectors of the economy, but entrenched industries have a habit of overestimating their costs. Republicans (and often Democrats from coal-producing states) answer by declaring regulations to be job killers that will drive up utility rates. However, research shows that the relationship between regulations and layoffs is minimal at best.
Regulations themselves do not kill jobs. It’s fossil fuel barons and utility executives, not regulators, who threaten to raise rates and initiative layoffs when the cost of mandatory pollution controls cut into their bottom lines.
These players refuse to pay for a cleaner world, and they will continue to provide hefty political contributions to politicians who support them, preventing most Democrats from going after them head on. During Pruitt’s hearing, Republicans gleefully pointed out that Hillary Clinton received a controversial amount of financial support from the fossil fuel industry as a presidential candidate. Moreover, Democrats may express alarm about climate disruption, but the climate is not going to put itself on hold until they regain a majority in Congress.
What’s Best for Business
Fortunately for those living near industrial swine farms in North Carolina, a Democrat has replaced McCrory as governor, and van der Vaart has stepped down from secretary of the DEQ, presumably to avoid a political firing. In its letter of concern about the racial discrimination complaint, the Obama administration’s EPA said it was looking forward to working with the new leadership, but that iteration of the EPA would only exist for another week before Trump took over.
Like many parts of the agency, the EPA’s civil rights office was busy during the final months of the Obama administration. Mounting criticism over its dismal record of responding to civil rights complaints climaxed last year with a report from the US Commission on Civil Rights, which found that the EPA had a “long history” of failing to enforce the Civil Rights Act. The office responded by putting “new energy” into investigating complaints, clarifying standards for identifying discrimination, and moving forward with complaints that had languished for years, according to Marianne Engelman Lado, an attorney for Earthjustice.
“I think they realized they needed to clean house or their legacy would be as bad as their predecessors’,” Engelman Lado said.
Engelman Lado said the Civil Rights Act, which protects minorities against discrimination, remains the law of the land regardless of who is running the EPA. Still, advocates expect policies protecting poor communities and neighborhoods of color to be weakened and eliminated under Trump, who is already working to gut the EPA. Pruitt has hardly mentioned the civil rights office at the agency he wants to run, but there’s a good chance he believes what’s best for business is best for civil rights, and that just doesn’t add up.