DENR found critics and praise under Skvarla

John Skvarla’s two years leading the Department of Environment and Natural Resources began with a turn to a customer-friendly regulatory role.

“He’s always emphasized that the new mission statement is protecting the environment first but making sure we can have a vibrant economy,” said DENR spokesman Drew Elliot. “Having a vibrant economy can ensure that we have a healthy environment.”

As Skvarla’s tenure nears an end, DENR and a federal grand jury are still sorting through an environmental disaster that prompted claims of a too-friendly relationship between the department and Duke Energy.

When a Duke power plant dumped tons of coal ash into the Dan River in February, critics pounced.

DENR had blocked citizen lawsuits over Duke’s ash, advocates claimed, by filing its own litigation and negotiating tepid penalties. Gov. Pat McCrory’s years as a Duke executive heightened suspicions.

In announcing Skvarla’s move to the Commerce Department on Tuesday, McCrory praised him for taking more action on coal ash than any previous administration.

McCrory said Skvarla’s “leadership, ability to work under high pressure and business-friendly approach is exactly what the Department of Commerce needs” as Secretary Sharon Decker departs.

Duke Energy had no comment on Skvarla’s tenure. Skvarla couldn’t be reached.

Republicans, who have controlled the state legislature since 2010, focused on regulations that they say unnecessarily hurt business, none more than those enforced by DENR.

In their first year as the majority party, the department’s budget and staff dropped by about a quarter as divisions were transferred elsewhere. DENR now has 2,900 budgeted positions, nearly 1,100 fewer than in 2010.

Under Skvarla, whom McCrory appointed in late 2012, DENR absorbed its water quality staff – a target of legislators – into the Division of Water Resources. The combined staff dropped by 7 percent not including vacancies.

Skvarla embraced a 3:2 concept for staff departures, in which two workers do the work of three, as the only meaningful way to provide raises during tight budget years. Twenty-four DENR staffers saw raises averaging $8,300, Elliot said.

But the cuts and policy changes left some DENR staff demoralized and unsure they had superiors’ backing.

“John Skvarla ushered in an era of regressive environmental policies and procedures that placed industry over the needs of the environment and people,” Amy Adams, a former water quality supervisor who now works for the advocacy group Appalachian Voices, said by email. “It is my sincere hope that his departure from DENR will allow the return of accountability and reason.”

Lisa Martin of the North Carolina Home Builders Association said developers often complained, before Skvarla’s time, that it was hard to get decisions from DENR. They fumed as the department dithered.

Skvarla, she said, succeeded in reorganizing the department’s structure, mission and attitudes.

“I don’t think it was ever intended to be, ‘Now the business community can get what it wants,’ ” Martin said. “It means that we can work more effectively. If you’re going to tell us ‘no,’ that’s an answer, too, but being strung along is not an answer.”

Mixed reviews

Surveys show that regulated customers like the culture change, Elliot said.

DENR fines that totaled about $2 million a year from 2006 to 2008 dropped to $518,000 in 2013, the first under Skvarla.

McCrory praised Skvarla for DENR’s role in crafting energy policy, one of the governor’s top priorities. The department also helped shape coal legislation that put Duke on a 15-year timeline for closing its ash ponds.

“He has gotten mixed reviews, from all sides,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican who is vice chairman of the environment committee and a key author of the ash bill.

Some businesspeople thought the department was not changing quickly enough under a Republican administration, McGrady said. Environmental leaders saw the customer-friendly approach as inappropriate for a regulatory agency.

Legislators, in a rebuke to DENR’s performance on coal ash, pointedly put the new Coal Ash Management Commission in the Department of Public Safety.

“If there was a high degree of confidence in DENR, you might not have needed an independent coal ash commission,” McGrady said. “But there was a shared perception that we needed an independent evaluation of whatever DENR put forward.”

The department took other unusual steps under Skvarla.

DENR waived a state certification for a proposed reservoir in Cleveland County, the first time it had taken such action, but later reversed course. The department returned a federal grant for research into the effects of fracking on streams and wetlands.

A federal grand jury that subpoenaed DENR documents and 18 current and former employees, in the aftermath of Duke’s ash spill, has not produced indictments but is apparently still at work.

Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club, noted that Skvarla served during a challenging time and at the direction of the governor.

His departure, she said, “is an opportunity for the governor to align his administration with the expectations of the citizens of the state as to what they want from an environmental agency.”