A scientist who’s worked at North Carolina’s environmental agency for more than two decades said he was forced out after being appointed to a Trump administration scientific advisory board.
Donald van der Vaart was chosen to serve on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Science Advisory Board in early November, less than 24 hours later, he was put on “investigatory leave.”
Three-and-a-half weeks later, he’s resigned from his position at North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
“I have to wonder if it’s related to Administrator Pruitt and President Trump,” said van der Vaart, a chemical engineer with a law degree who’s worked as an environmental regulator in North Carolina for more than 23 years.
“That seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back,” van der Vaart told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an interview.
Van der Vaart submitted his resignation Tuesday evening, about one week after receiving a letter from current DEQ Secretary Michael Regan they were going to recommend he be dismissed for “unacceptable personal conduct.”
What did van der Vaart do? Regan wrote the now-DEQ middling published an article in an academic journal that contradicted the agency’s position on an EPA regulation.
Regan specifically said van der Vaart’s “use of a small print disclaimer” saying the article expressed personal views “creates confusion for the public” and hurts DEQ’s credibility on impartially enforcing the law.
Regan went on to add they were “aware” of van der Vaart’s “nomination to various scientific boards without timely and appropriate discussion with this department.”
“They’d like to get rid of anybody who seems to be tolerant of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt,” van der Vaart said. “It was kind of sad to me.”
In his resignation letter, Van der Vaart said the Cooper administration’s attempt to “stifle” his opinions in academic journals was a “politicization of science and law.”
Van der Vaart has published around 50 scientific and legal articles and commentaries in journals, which past administrations had no problem with. Van der Vaart also said the font used in the disclaimer was a “publisher’s decision,” not his.
“From my standpoint it wasn’t so much that, as that they totally changed their policies,” Van der Vaart told TheDCNF. “I’ve been doing it for years. Nobody told me the rules changed.”
Van der Vaart became the first career scientist to become DEQ secretary during the Republican McCrory administration, but his opposition to many federal and state regulations championed by environmentalists made him political enemies.
At DEQ’s helm, van der Vaart spoke out against EPA regulations he thought intrusive. Van der Vaart publicly supported President Donald Trump and was even considered to head EPA.
However, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt got the EPA gig, and van der Vaart returned to his DEQ section chief job after Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, took office this year. News outlets claimed van der Vaart demoted himself and his second-in-command to avoid a political firing, but he said the arrangement was pre-approved before the took DEQ’s helm.
But van der Vaart again came under fire in September for co-authoring an article that environmentalists labeled “an effort to undermine the current leadership” on environmental policy. DEQ criticized van der Vaart’s article.
Van der Vaart attracted more notice when he was appointed by Pruitt to sit on an EPA advisory board as part of an effort to bring on advisors who weren’t currently taking agency grants.
Democrats and environmentalists heavily opposed the policy change, which was announced in October. Pruitt said the policy change was needed to “ensure independence” of EPA science advisors.
Scientists serve on EPA panels in their personal capacity, separate from their government or other work. Van der Vaart previously served on an EPA panel on permitting, which he said the state previously saw as a plus.
“I can confirm that Mr. van der Vaart has retired from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality,” DEQ spokeswoman Laura Leonard told TheDCNF. “I cannot comment on his investigatory leave as it is a personnel issue.”
Van der Vaart said he still plans to serve on the EPA science board, despite his resignation.