Pruitt taps van der Vaart for federal science advisory board

Former DEQ secretary joins scientists from state agencies focused on building partnership between states and federal environment agency.

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
North Carolina Secretary of Department of Environmental Quality Donald van der Vaart discusses environmental issues with an Advanced Placement Environmental class at Broughton High School

WASHINGTON, D.C. — EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has tapped Donald van der Vaart, N.C.’s former environment secretary, to the federal agency’s Scientific Advisory Board. Once considered a contender to lead EPA, van der Vaart served in the McCrory administration at the head of the Department of Environmental Quality and holds a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Cambridge in England. He also holds a law degree from N.C. Central University, a master’s degree in chemical engineering from NC State University and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from UNC Chapel Hill.

Pruitt’s announcement of the appointments came in a press conference Tuesday in which he also announced a new policy limiting appointee’s ability to receive research grants from the agency. Under prior administrations scientific panels for the EPA drew heavily from the academic community. Now, van der Vaart joins a new slate of scientists from around the country who have previously served in state and local governments or trade groups.

“Being named to this science advisory board is very gratifying,” said van der Vaart on Tuesday. “To be able to contribute as a scientist to the important tasks before the EPA, while allowing the policymakers to do their job is liberating in many ways.”

The appointments reflect a dramatic shift in the approach to managing the EPA. In November 2016, just after the presidential election, Van der Vaart penned a letter to President Donald Trump calling for the EPA to be more of a partner with states in managing their environmental policy.

“Our country still needs the EPA, but not the EPA of recent years,” he wrote. “We need research targeted at our specific, clear environmental challenges. This can best be done by coordinating industry-level initiatives that cross state lines, which can be defined by measurable success. We must put an end to the idea that more regulation is always good, and instead allow state and local experts to improve the environment.”

Several other appointees announced on Tuesday are also scientists from state and local agencies, many of whom have been vocal critics of what they say is overreach in the EPA’s recent increase in regulations over business.

Chairing the SAB will be Michael Honeycutt, director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Toxicology Division. Honeycutt has openly criticized the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System.

The terms of the SAB’s current board members expired on Sept. 30, and Pruitt reportedly elected to not renew any of their terms. Earlier this year he removed the members of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, even if they were eligible to serve another term.

Former SAB chairman Terry Yosi, who served in the Reagan administration, is already coming out publicly, telling EPA-focused website insidetheepa.com, “SAB will become a much less active participant in EPA decision-making as various EPA offices choose not to engage the SAB for scientific reviews.”

New faces and new policies are becoming the norm at the EPA, as Pruitt works to make changes that are not always sitting well with the long-term federal supporters of the agency. Among the changes, Pruitt issued an agency-wide directive designed to end “sue and settle” practices within the agency.

“The days of regulation through litigation are over,” said Pruitt. “We will no longer go behind closed doors and use consent decrees and settlement agreements to resolve lawsuits filed against the agency by special-interest groups where doing so would circumvent the regulatory process set forth by Congress. Additionally, gone are the days of routinely paying tens of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees to these groups with which we swiftly settle.”