Politics & Government

NC DEQ scientist tapped as Trump adviser. Now he’s on investigative leave.

Former McCrory DEQ heads Donald van der Vaart, left, and John Evans have been put on paid leave by Roy Cooper’s Department of Environmental Quality secretary Michael Regan.
Former McCrory DEQ heads Donald van der Vaart, left, and John Evans have been put on paid leave by Roy Cooper’s Department of Environmental Quality secretary Michael Regan. N&O file photo, left, and DEQ photo

Two Department of Environmental Quality employees who were first and second in command during former Gov. Pat McCrory’s Republican administration have been suspended with pay from the state agency under the new Democratic administration.

Donald van der Vaart, a recent appointee to the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency Scientific Advisory Board and the DEQ secretary at the end of McCrory’s term, has been put on “investigatory leave,” according to new DEQ Secretary Michael Regan.

John Evans, who was van der Vaart’s deputy, also has been placed on “investigatory leave,” according to a brief statement released by Regan, a Gov. Roy Cooper appointee.

When van der Vaart was appointed to the EPA Scientific Advisory Board, after new EPA head Scott Pruitt stripped half a dozen scientists and researchers from their advisory roles, Regan issued a statement recently saying the former state secretary did not speak for North Carolina or the agency. Regan also said DEQ did not support his participation on the EPA board. He also was not to do any of the work for the board while on state time.

Regan offered no details of why van der Vaart and Evans were placed on leave. Under state personnel policies, workers may be suspended with pay for such purposes to investigate allegations of performance or conduct deficiencies that would constitute just cause for disciplinary action.

Efforts to reach van der Vaart and Evans were not immediately successful.

Both van der Vaart and Evans have written numerous opinion pieces together, including one published in the Environmental Law Reporter in September calling for the repeal of a key provision of the Clean Air Act that was designed to prevent polluters from getting around strict emission rules by moving into regions with relatively clean air to make it easier to meet standards.

That opinion puts the men in conflict with DEQ, which considers the program “a cornerstone of federal and state air quality programs,” DEQ spokesman Jamie Kritzer told NC Policy Watch.

“The . . . program is based on the common-sense approach of protecting air quality by subjecting the largest emitters to the most stringent levels of review,” Kritzer added.

Questions were raised at the time by environmental advocates about whether the former McCrory appointees used state computers and other state resources while writing the piece.

Toward the end of McCrory's term, van der Vaart demoted himself and Evans into jobs within DEQ where they would be protected from political firings that often take place as a new administration and party comes into office.

Van der Vaart was the first DEQ secretary to rise through the ranks as a scientist, and he returned almost a year ago to the air quality division where he had extensive experience as a regulator.

Before Pruitt was tapped to lead the EPA, van der Vaart was seen as a potential candidate to head the agency or lead one of its divisions under the Trump administration.

Under the McCrory administration, van der Vaart worked to roll back state air and water regulations, which brought him into conflict with the Obama administration EPA.

Almost immediately, van der Vaart began stumping for nuclear energy, even though DEQ has little say in which power plants are built in North Carolina. He often expressed doubts about the environmental benefits of wind and solar farms.

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.

While secretary of DEQ, van der Vaart made a salary of $130,935. In his current job, his salary is $98,000.

Evans’ salary is nearly $93,000.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1