Gutting DENR

How to ensure that government doesn't work

One of the hallmarks of conservative governance post-1980 has been its embrace of what you might call regulatory nullifiers — people appointed to lead government bodies on the grounds that there’s no way in hell they’ll do their jobs, via incompetence or intent or some noxious blend of both. There’s an inglorious history of this: Michael Brown comes immediately to mind, as does James Watt, the original nullifier.

Watt exemplifies regulatory nullification at its most profound. He was Secretary of the Interior, and he would have gladly channeled out and dammed a Montana trout stream for a cupful of crude plus reassurance that God did, after all, give man dominion over the earth.

Right-wingers love this kind of public servant, someone who makes a joke of governance and pisses off environmentalists, usually liberals. (I was about to say, “someone who pours sand into the gas tank of democracy,” but Watt would never do such a thing. That would mean one less gas-burning vehicle off the road. Taking a baseball bat to a solar panel would be more his speed.)

So it’s really no great surprise, then, that the state agency charged with overseeing North Carolina’s air and water resources and making sure private industry respects them has turned into an underfunded, toothless ghost, headed by a guy who believes environmental regulation stifles business growth.

It’s been a disgrace all year, but the takeover of DENR faded behind the nuttiness in the General Assembly — until we got to read a testimonial from Amy Adams, a former DENR official whose poignant op-ed the N&O ran Sunday. The column isn’t a screed as much as an expression of near-heartbreak:

For years, DENR has been stretched thin, its programs underfunded and its staff overworked, yet we managed to adhere to our core mission and to the personal dedication that drives many of us who work in state government.

But this year’s historic and hostile takeover of DENR by politically and ideologically motivated lawmakers in the General Assembly was soul-crushing. I could no longer clock in in good conscience and believe I could uphold my commitment to protect the environment …

There are simply too few employees with too much territory to cover, and the repercussions are real.

Staff are increasingly tasked with duties for which they have no previous experience, such as reviewing complex technical pollution-control permit applications.

Because state law requires DENR to issue permits within a tight deadline, staffers are under great pressure to essentially trust the industry’s word that everything is in order. (The phrase “a fox guarding the hen house” comes to mind.) I did not sign on to my DENR job to wield a rubber stamp.

There’s a specific reason why Gov. McCrory and his administrators would want an emasculated DENR. McCrory has made no secret of his endorsement of fracking and offshore petroleum exploration, which explains why agency Secretary John Skvarla was a smashing choice for the job back in January.

Skvarla has all the credentials to lead an environmental agency. (“Mr. Skvarla comes to DENR after a successful career in business … He also has been managing director of an investment banking office in Raleigh and owner of a Sandhills golf course community.”) He was a corporate and tax lawyer. He has tea party bona fides. In a January interview with WRAL-TV’s Laura Leslie, he demonstrated his grasp of environmental science by suggesting that oil and gas may be renewable resources — just ask the Russians — and that American petroleum reserves are “apparently” bigger than Saudi Arabia’s. (Not exactly. See video below. The cognitive fracking starts at 12:35.)

They’re consistent, at least. Last month, a new kid climbed into the clubhouse: Bryan Gossage, who was named executive director of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. He’s earning $78,000 in this job. Gossage has no apparent conservation experience. But wait! Pressed by N.C. Policy Watch, a DENR spokesman said Gossage gained the necessary experience by serving eight years on the Apex Town Council, “including conservation efforts during the drought of 2007-08.”

Another possible key qualification, though it went unmentioned by the DENR flack: Gossage’s wife, Chloe, is McCrory’s policy director, earning $110,000 per year.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest