Former NCDEQ secretary retires from agency after suspension

Former North Carolina Secretary of Environmental Quality Donald van der Vaart

RALEIGH, N.C. (WBTV) – Former North Carolina Secretary of Environmental Quality Donald van der Vaart is retiring from the agency, less than a month after being placed on paid administrative leave by current DEQ Secretary Michael Regan.

Van der Vaart served as DEQ Secretary under Republican Governor Pat McCrory. He was named to the position after working as a career scientist with the department.

After McCrory lost re-election, van der Vaart went back to the career position he held prior to his promotion to secretary. The move was criticized by some who accused van der Vaart of ‘demoting’ himself to keep from being fired by newly-elected Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat who named Regan to the top DEQ job soon after taking office in January 2017.

Van der Vaart was placed on paid administrative leave on November 1, 2017 after co-authoring a scientific article and accepting a board on a scientific advisory board convened by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The letter from DEQ Human Resources Director Ursula Hairston to van der Vaart notifying him of his paid leave does not give a specific reason for the action.

“This leave is being initiated in order to investigate concerns regarding your conduct and recent actions that may have compromised the Division of Air Quality and the Department of Environmental Quality,” the letter said. “This is not a disciplinary action.”

Van der Vaart submitted a letter to DEQ notifying the agency of his retirement late Tuesday afternoon.

In his letter, the former DEQ secretary speculated his placement on administrative leave was because of research that the current DEQ secretary disagreed with.

“So after publishing some thirty articles following the same procedures, including providing a disclaimer on the manuscript, this administration is moving to stifle my contributions to scientific and legal discourse in professional journals.

This is deeply troubling,” van der Vaart wrote in his letter.

In an interview with WBTV, van der Vaart said DEQ officials offered little reason for the suspension.

“They came back with that they didn’t appreciate the article that I co-authored and that I was nominated to a federal committee,” he said. “That’s kind of surprising because I’ve been writing those kinds of articles for years and I’ve been on a committee in years past.”

Van der Vaart said he is worried about what impact his suspension may have on other career employees and their ability and willingness to conduct scientific research.

“I’m afraid it’s probably a little more about politics but it’s still sad nonetheless,” van der Vaart said of his suspension.

For his part, van der Vaart said he does not plan to take legal action against the department, noting that he is retiring.

Spokeswomen for DEQ did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

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