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N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Donald van der Vaart has demoted himself to another position in the agency on the eve of a new administration replacing Cabinet members and hundreds of other state officials.
The DEQ chief will return to a position in the air quality division as a section chief, where he worked for 20 years before being elevated by Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration, in hopes of keeping a job with the state. The new position is apparently classified as non-exempt, which means he is protected from political firing and hiring, although DEQ and human resources communications officials said they couldn’t confirm that.
The move will be effective on Sunday, when Roy Cooper takes office as the next governor.
Cooper’s transition team has already begun sending out dismissal letters to “several dozen” political appointees in state government, according to a spokesman. He is entitled to 425 positions that are exempt from state personnel protections. Van der Vaart was sent one of those letters, a spokesman said.
The new governor will appoint new Cabinet members to run agencies such as DEQ. Under a new law the General Assembly just passed, and McCrory signed into law, the state Senate must confirm his Cabinet choices.
Van der Vaart was the first DEQ secretary to rise through the ranks as a scientist, and he will return to a division where he has extensive experience as a regulator.
He was seen as a potential candidate to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or lead one of its divisions under the new administration of President Donald Trump. The North State Journal reported earlier this month that van der Vaart had met with Trump transition team members.
Van der Vaart was elevated from the DEQ ranks by then-Secretary John Skvarla in August 2014, when he was named deputy secretary. After Skvarla moved to the Commerce Department, van der Vaart replaced him in January 2015.
He led the administration’s charge against over-regulation by the EPA and state regulations, favoring what it described as a more balanced cost-benefit approach to environmental and business interests. Environmental advocates have clashed repeatedly with van der Vaart.
Van der Vaart holds a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Cambridge in England, a law degree from N.C. Central University, a master’s degree in chemical engineering from N.C. State University and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Van der Vaart made a salary of $130,935 as secretary of the department. His new salary was not immediately available.
Van der Vaart is not the first state official who scrambled to save his job in a new administration. Alcohol Law Enforcement Director John Ledford received permission to demote himself to agent when McCrory took office, and was later fired.