On Dec. 20, a press release from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources arrived in my inbox. Intended to “help journalists with year-end stories” the release celebrated the agency’s “new mission, customer service improvements and coal ash lawsuits” as being North Carolina’s big environmental stories in 2013.
Among the self-promoted stories of DENR’s accomplishments in the past 12 months is the legal action it took against Duke Energy to address the threat of coal ash contamination from leaky ponds at 14 coal-fired power plants.
Not included, however, is the role that citizens first had in making North Carolina a poster child for the poor regulation of coal ash. And absent is any mention of the questionable settlement proposed by DENR in July that came with a fine of just $99,000 and the requirement that Duke assess the extent of contamination, or other examples where it has failed to put the public before polluters since.
Beyond that, the release – which celebrates the consolidation of barely related divisions and the streamlining of administrative functions with a significantly smaller staff – is an example of how those in charge at DENR have taken to peddling a dangerous misrepresentation of the year the agency has had and the challenges that lie ahead.
With DENR management’s penchant for self-praise, the future must seem pretty bright. But beyond the narrative contrived in media releases, public criticism and displays of distrust in the agency’s direction have become commonplace in North Carolina’s largest newspapers and media outlets. And it’s making the state’s environmental community stronger.
Several impassioned rebukes have come from former DENR employees themselves. Last month, an op-ed appeared in The News & Observer by Amy Adams, who resigned from her position as a DENR regional supervisor after seven years of public service. In it, Adams describes the “soul-crushing” takeover of the agency where she thought she would spend her career.
“‘Do more with less’ has become the mantra of upper [DENR] management,” wrote Adams, who is now Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina campaign coordinator, “but we in the ranks heard the message loud and clear: ‘Do less. Period.’
Although customer service is a rallying cry of the current leadership, it seems that businesses and industry are considered the only ‘customers.’”
Of the many members under fire first-term Governor Pat McCrory’s administration, few have been more strident or reactionary to criticism than the secretary of DENR, John Skvarla, who was appointed in December 2012. Responding in The News & Observer to Adams’ op-ed, Skvarla called DENR a “customer-friendly juggernaut” that replaced “North Carolina’s number one obstacle of resistance.” He mostly seemed perturbed to have to again explain why “this is progress!”
Apparently averse to addressing any actual criticism, Skvarla’s many public responses stick to commending DENR’s reorganization and policy changes absent evidence of any good they have produced – “this is progress!”
In the reader comments to Adams’ op-ed, Skvarla’s rebuttal, and a handful of letters to the editor – see here, here, and here – submitted in the final weeks of 2013, there is plenty of evidence of the gap that’s growing between North Carolinians’ desire for a healthy environment and DENR’s skewed self-perception.
To many, Skvarla’s customer-first mentality is merely a pretense for an impervious ideology pitting the economic growth against environmental health. But we’ve heard that all before, and know it’s not necessary to sacrifice one for the other. So the continued tone-deaf responses reinforcing DENR’s exceptional customer service do nothing to lessen a vocal public’s dissatisfaction with the way the agency is undermining the state’s legacy of environmental protection.
Unfortunately though, it’s worse than a public figure tending to a bruised ego. The culture at DENR under Skvarla has been turned inside out, putting clean air and water at risk and causing even the most committed employees to question their positions, or, like Adams and others, resign in protest.
So here’s a prescription for the embattled Secretary Skvarla in the new year: Do some soul-searching into what it means to be a public agency whose customers are not just big businesses and industry, but every North Carolinian.