At a public panel hosted by the Sierra Club in Durham Thursday evening, three former employees of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) wasted no breath in criticizing what DENR has become in the wake of McCrory’s budget and staffing cuts and under the leadership of the Department’s Secretary, John Skvarla.
Amy Adams, George Matthis and John Dorney— all DENR veterans who served under various administrations—pointed to low morale, a climate of fear and a lack of regard for science and scientific data as being major problems plaguing DENR since Skvarla took the helm.
Ken Reckhow, professor emeritus at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, moderated the discussion.
“If you’re being told that you have to ‘put a smile’ on your work plan, there must be a problem,” Matthis said. “There are people there, including some management and supervisors, who are afraid to speak out about anything anymore because they’re worried their job could be the next to go.”
Adams, a former regional office supervisor for surface water protection, has been one of the most vocal critics of the changes at DENR, especially since Duke Energy’s coal ash spill at the Dan River last month.
Adams told the panel that earlier that day she saw a letter from Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good meant to detail the company’s plans to clean up its coal ash ponds across the state.
Duke is on deadline to submit those plans to McCrory and Skvarla by Saturday.
“The term woefully inadequate comes to mind when I read this letter,” Adams said about the four-page document.
Adams said the letter did not provide any details— a timeline, cost analysis, prioritization—of how the cleanup efforts would unfold.
Good has said she expects ratepayers to bear the cost of cleanup for most of the coal ash sites in the state.
Matthis, who worked at DENR for 33 years in water quality, coastal management and waste management, had some of the harshest words for Skvarla—an attorney and businessman— and Governor McCrory.
“(Skvarla) is either environmentally ignorant or he’s misguided,” Matthis said. “Even though he’s spent some time with an ecological restoration company as CEO in Raleigh, he really doesn't have the environmental experience people think he does…Even folks that are inside the corporation he used to work for would say he really isn't in tune with the environmental side of things.”
Matthis said he doesn't think the state has ever had a DENR secretary who “enjoys making a public spectacle of the Department like this.”
He criticized Skvarla for what he called “a level of unprofessional-ism that doesn't belong in a cabinet secretary,” citing him for his misguided statements on climate change and oil as a renewable resource, his defensiveness during press conferences and his publicly calling out an environmentalist attorney at an Environmental Review Commission meeting.
“In all my time with DENR… I just don’t recall any actions taking place like that,” he said. “It has damaged DENR’s credibility and tarnished their image of being the protector of our air and water resources.”
Matthis also criticized “Governor Flip-Flop” for his wavering positions on what Duke Energy should be doing to address its coal ash pollution, and said he would prefer a leader who takes a strong position and sticks with it—even if he has to apologize for it later.
“I don’t understand how you can come out very strongly on a position like coal ash ponds needing to be cleaned up and then a day or two later change your mind and say we need to study it more,” Matthis said about McCrory. “And then you look at the press and see you’re getting negative reviews, go back the other way again and demand it get cleaned up.”
Matthis indicted the Legislature as well, for the Regulatory Reform Act (HB 74), fast-tracking fracking and turning down $600 thousand in federal grants for wetland monitoring and surface water testing in areas where fracking could take place.
Matthis said the Mining and Energy Commission is stacked with “hired guns for industry” who simply ignore scientific data presented to them if it is not in line with their position.
He urged the audience to attend Mining and Energy meetings and voice their opposition to fracking.
All of the panelists agreed that while DENR has always had its problems, under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, they had never seen the situation this bad before and that DENR, in John Dorney’s words, now “serves at the pleasure of the Governor.”
Matthis referenced Skvarla’s notorious comment about living in lean-tos and wearing loincloths “if environmentalists got their way” to highlight the irony of current DENR activities.
“Maybe our environmental protection is being set back to the point that we should all be wearing loin cloths and living in lean-tos,” he said.