Earth & Energy

Environmental Management Commission chair resigns

Benne Hutson, the Charlotte lawyer who led North Carolina's environmental rule-making board, has resigned under the weight of time spent on state business.

Sen. Thom Tillis was the N.C. House leader when he named Hutson, who practices environmental law, to the Environmental Management Commission in 2012. When the Republican-led legislature wiped the board clean the following year, Hutson was reappointed as chair.

That extended Hutson's initial two-year term to mid-2017. But he said the decision to resign was based on the 500 hours he spent on EMC business last year, including meetings, staff discussions and public talks. He spent 40 nights in Raleigh.

"I can't commit the time to do the job and do it right," Hutson said. "I now have a real appreciation for the value of public service, and I have a much greater appreciation for the quality of the staff at DENR. They’re just really good."

His resignation, effective last Thursday, comes as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources also roils its top management. Gov. Pat McCrory this month named longtime staff member Donald van der Vaart to replace John Skvarla as environment secretary. Van der Vaart promptly replaced assistant secretaries Mitch Gillespie, who will move to a post in Asheville, and Brad Ives, who left DENR.

Under Hutson, the EMC undertook the business-friendly legislature's mandate to review environmental rules and delete those deemed unnecessary. Most of those reviewed so far, for surface water, wetlands and dry-cleaning businesses, are in the process of being readopted. But Hutson said commission members "really started raising questions" about whether proposed rules will work as intended.

The commission also lost a court case over its interpretation of state rules on contaminated groundwater, a key issue in regulating Duke Energy's coal ash ponds. A Wake County judge last year reversed the EMC, in part, by ruling that the state can require "immediate action" to stop the source of contamination. The case is before the state Supreme Court.

Hutson said he's spent time reaching out to skeptics of the Republican-dominated state government and tried to make the EMC's work transparent to the public.

"If everybody has a chance to have their say, we may have disagreements at the end but it's not nearly as strident as it would have been," he said.

(First posted on Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015. For older posts, go here.)