Ousted from DEQ, John Evans, an opponent of regulation, lands job at EPA writing air quality rules

By: - June 17, 2020 9:38 am
John Evans (File photo: DEQ)

John Evans, former Chief Deputy Secretary of the NC Department of Environmental Quality, has spent much of his career opposing tighter air regulations. Now he has a new job: Writing air quality rules for the EPA.

Evans recently started working at the EPA office in Research Triangle Park, according to two people familiar with the position. Evans is listed in the staff directory.

A rule writer is a key position within EPA. Evans works in a section that writes Clean Air Act rules for forestry, food and agriculture. The section’s official name is Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, Sector Policy and Programs Division, Natural Resources Group.

The Natural Resources Group writes air rules governing a range of industries and uses, including pesticide applications,  pulp and paper manufacturing, and facilities that make wood preservatives, vegetable oil, even nutritional yeast.

Evans joins the EPA at an auspicious time for those who oppose tighter regulations. Under the Trump administration, the EPA is quickly gutting rules, more than 100 so far, according to The New York Times. Of those rollbacks, 27 govern air pollution. That includes a rule proposed last year that would reduce the area of pesticide application buffer zones, a regulation that falls under the Natural Resources Group.

Currently, pesticide applicators must stop their work if someone enters the buffer, also known as an Agricultural Exclusion Zone. By reducing the area of the zone, more people — farmworkers, nearby residents and passersby — could be legally exposed to these chemicals.

Evans is professionally qualified for the job, having served as an air quality supervisor, general counsel and chief deputy secretary for the NC Department of Environmental Quality. But he has consistently — and publicly — called for weaker air quality regulations, especially in his opinion pieces that appeared in professional law journals.

Evans worked in DEQ’s air division before his ascension to a top rung of the department. Former Gov. Pat McCrory had appointed Donald van der Vaart as Secretary of the Environment in 2015; in turn, van der Vaart named Evans as his chief deputy.

During their tenure, the agency became more vocal in its anti-regulatory, pro-business stance. DEQ sued the EPA over the Clean Power Plan and clashed with the Obama administration about the PSD rules. Van der Vaart was in charge when the EPA disapproved of North Carolina’s implementation plan for those rules, as they related to emitters of fine particulate matter. That pollution, known as PM 2.5, is important because it burrows into the lungs and can cause or worsen respiratory illnesses.

DEQ unsuccessfully challenged the EPA’s disapproval in court, and ultimately had to change its plan.

When the governor’s office changed hands in 2017, van der Vaart and Evans could have been ousted because they were political appointees. To stay employed, van der Vaart demoted himself — and Evans — to section chiefs within the air division. They were responsible for overseeing monitoring, permitting and enforcement staff within their respective sections.

It was in those roles that, as Policy Watch reported in late 2017, Evans and van der Vaart co-authored a controversial article in the Environmental Law Reporter  They wrote a seven-page opinion piece calling for the repeal of a core tenet of the Clean Air Act, known as PSD, or Prevention of Significant Deterioration.

The intention of PSD regulations is to prevent major polluters from eluding stricter emissions rules by moving into areas where the air is relatively clean. The industries could then sully the air in their new locations.

While the men acknowledged in a easy-to-miss disclaimer that their views didn’t reflect that of DEQ, their bylines prominently carried their respective titles. The article’s anti-regulatory stance not only clashed with those of the new DEQ leadership, but also appeared to flout its authority.

The new DEQ Secretary, Michael Regan, placed both van der Vaart and Evans on administrative leave. They later resigned. Van der Vaart now is a senior fellow at the conservative John Locke Foundation. He also sits on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, an appointee of former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt.

Van der Vaart was also appointed by Sen. Phil Berger to the state’s Environmental Management Commission, which approves the rules enforced by DEQ.

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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.