In recent months President TrumpDonald TrumpSix big off-year elections you might be missing Twitter suspends GOP Rep. Banks for misgendering trans health official Meghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' MORE suffered the embarrassing failure of having not one, but two of his picks for key federal environmental positions forced to withdraw their nominations. Both Michael Dourson and Kathleen Harnett White faced stiff opposition in the Senate for standing far outside the mainstream public’s views on protecting American families from air pollution, water pollution, and dangerous chemicals.
But their failure to advance does not appear to be stopping Trump from making the same mistake again.
Trump is now reportedly planning to nominate Donald van der Vaart — a controversial, former lead regulator in North Carolina — to be a top White House environmental official. He is just as wrong for this position as Hartnett White or Dourson were for theirs.
Van der Vaart is not simply a conservative who is skeptical of government environmental rules. He is a crusading ideologue who has shown a willingness to disregard scientific expertise and manipulate conclusions reached by dedicated career staff to serve his pre-determined policy preferences.
While leading the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), van der Vaart appeared bent on putting polluting interests ahead of environmental protection and children’s health. His record in North Carolina is damning.
Indeed, he presided over the systematic weakening of the agency in his charge. This provoked a sharp rebuke from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which cited several alarming trends related to treatment of polluters, including a general decline in the number of enforcement actions brought by North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, weak enforcement actions that failed to bring violators back into compliance, ineffective deterrence to avoid violations in the first place, and a failure to sufficiently address repeat offenders.
In 2015, van der Vaart’s Department of Environmental Quality proposed new air quality regulations that would weaken or eliminate air pollution protections for nearly 1,500 facilities across North Carolina. Of those, approximately 1,200 were fully exempted from pollution control and reporting requirements. Van der Vaart’s department went out of its way to tout the financial savings these rollbacks were creating for polluting interests, but failed to fully acknowledge the reality that the proposal would deliver more toxic air pollution for children and families living in the communities where these facilities are located.
In 2015, it was also revealed that van der Vaart’s department had been quietly dismantling dozens of air quality monitors across the state, prior to any legislative action requiring the agency to do so. The department’s paper-thin excuses about reallocating resources to focus on other pollution concerns were likely of little comfort to families and communities made more vulnerable to increased levels of air pollution that went undetected.
His attacks on clean air protections continued unabated during his time at the department. After Gov. Pat McCrory lost his reelection bid to Roy Cooper in 2016, van der Vaart took the strange step of demoting himself to a lesser position at the agency. Then in 2017, safely ensconced in a career staff position that shielded him from being dismissed by the incoming Cooper administration, he co-authored an opinion piece published in Environmental Law Reporter calling for repeal of a core component of the Clean Air Act. His argument seemed far out of the mainstream for an environmental regulator operating at the state level — and a direct contradiction of the new Cooper administration’s stance.
In my view , van der Vaart made North Carolina families less safe from air and water pollution and prioritized protecting polluters over regulatory integrity. It is this precise behavior that has mired EPA’s current administrator, Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy & Environment — Biden makes return to pre-Trump national monument boundaries official Trump-era EPA board member sues over firing EPA bans use of pesticide linked to developmental problems in children MORE, in scandals and deeply undermined the public’s confidence in Trump’s handling of environmental issues.
The country doesn’t need the problems that come with someone like van der Vaart. Frankly, neither does Trump.
David Kelly is the North Carolina political affairs manager for Environmental Defense Fund.