DEQ Secretary Regan sails through Senate confirmation hearing

By: - April 6, 2017 2:45 pm

Today’s Senate committee hearing for NC DEQ Secretary Michael Regan felt like a softball game, and not even fast-pitch. Instead, lawmakers tossed questions at the nominee — some that Regan had seen in advance — which were ready for him to hit.

Regan had met informally with many lawmakers well before the hearing, likely softening the ground for the cordial nature of today’s proceedings. In fact, at a recent environmental forum in Mebane, Regan remarked that “away from the cameras, behind closed doors, the conversations are more civil.”

Throughout the hour-long confirmation hearing, Regan emphasized “engaging with all of the stakeholders” in crafting, deciphering and enforcing environmental rules. “I have a balanced and pragmatic perspective,” Regan said. “A thriving economy and protecting natural resources are not mutually exclusive.”

Regan emphasized that his tenure at the EPA, where he was a national program manager in air toxics under the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, and at the Environmental Defense Fund, where he worked on clean energy. These experiences, he said, helped him negotiate “win-win situations” for business and environmental communities.

“We used to say at the EPA that, ‘We like to educate rather than regulate,” Regan said. “We  want to create a culture where people who involuntarily violated a rule come to the agency to figure out how to work out of the situation. This is not a gotcha game, but how to protect our natural resources.

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“I learned that when all is said and done, the business community wants regulatory certainty,” he added. Industry and environmentalists both “want to be heard and to participate in a transparent process.”

Regulations, a freighted and frightening word for many conservatives (unless it applies to renewable energy), dominated much of the questioning. Regan, responding to a query from Republican Sen. Ron Rabin, told the committee that he “had not seen the need for any additional regulations at this time,” although that issue could be revisited later.

Nor is Regan looking to implement a North Carolina version of the Clean Power Plan, which was essentially repealed by President Trump. Because of the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard — again under attack from conservative lawmakers this year — and the 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act, which required utilities to significantly curb their smog-causing emissions, North Carolina will likely achieve the CPP’s benchmarks anyway.

Regan said he is headed tomorrow to Goldsboro, his hometown, to meet with officials at Seymour Air Force Base about the interaction between the military and wind/solar farms. Both forms of renewable energy are under scrutiny in the General Assembly – action critics believe amounts to a veiled attempt to undermine their proliferation.

The Navy already OK’d the Amazon Wind Farm near Elizabeth City. And Regan’s chief deputy, John Nicholson, is a retired colonel, who likely could forge “robust stakeholder engagement”  with military officials.

A bill introduced this week would also study the prevalence and health risks of hexavalent chromium, also known as Chromium 6, in drinking water wells near coal ash impoundments. Safe levels of Chromium 6 in drinking water were a centerpiece of the controversial “do not drink” and subsequent “do drink” letters sent by DEQ under the McCrory administration.

Currently the drinking water standard near coal ash impoundments is 0.07 parts per billion.

Sen. Bill Cook asked Regan if he thought that threshold was “appropriate.”

“We’re not there yet, sir,” Regan replied. “We’re looking at the science that all parties have” — Duke Energy, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the environmental and affected communities. “We’re trying to ascertain the right level of data to set the standards.”

Environmental advocates would have likely wanted to hear Regan vociferously oppose the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which will route through eastern North Carolina. But Regan steered away from his personal opinions and instead hewed to the agency’s limited permitting role with respect to the ACP; the natural gas pipeline falls under the purview of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

DEQ is conducting its own environmental assessment; FERC issued its Draft Environmental Impact Statement late last year.

“We are trying to lay out our permitting process so Duke and Dominion will know how to pass our rigorous permitting tests,” Regan said. “We’ve offered comments [on the federal document] hoping process does not wall off the tribal and environmental groups.”

There were a few puzzling moments, courtesy of Republican Sen. Brent Jackson, an agribusinessman from down East. He asserted that the federal Waters of the United States rule, which helps protect smaller streams from agricultural waste and other pollutants, marked the “greatest land grab in American history.”

Apparently, Jackson had forgotten about the early colonists’ seizing millions of acres of Native American lands. (In 1707, Colonial Governor of North Carolina Nathaniel Johnson ascribed the “thinning of Indians” by disease to the “hand of God.”)

President Trump has already put WOTUS, as the rule is known for short, on hold via executive order.

Regan said his team has been studying Trump’s order to understand what it means for the state. “It’s my job to carefully interpret what the president intends in rescinding it, and to make sure North Carolina follows the law accordingly.”

Jackson also claimed that environmental groups were forcing some hog farmers into bankruptcy through lawsuits. That is not true. The industrialized swine farms, targeted by the legal action, are owned by Smithfield/Murphy-Brown or Prestage, both multi-million dollar corporations.

Regan told the committee that he had met with the industry group, the NC Pork Council for nearly three hours and that he plans to visit several large swine farms later this month. He has also asked the EPA to “back off” a Title VI environmental justice complaint filed by community groups against DEQ over environmental and health impacts from the farms.

Instead, Regan said, DEQ will “engage in mediation.” Previous EPA-ordered mediation sessions between DEQ and affected communities crumbled under former Secretary Donald van der Vaart. In that case, DEQ officials tipped the NC Pork Council to the confidential mediation sessions, and industry lawyers showed up. The communities subsequently filed a Title VI complaint, alleging that DEQ had attempted to intimidate them by telling the pork industry about the mediation.

“We try to avoid the courtroom,” Regan said.

As expected, the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee unanimously recommended Regan’s confirmation to the full Senate.­

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.