Plan to Crush the EPA Is a Symptom of a Bigger Problem

by Mike Ludwig, Truthout | Report –

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.

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.

Toxic Politics

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.

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Reprinted with permission from Truthout