RALEIGH, North Carolina — For years, North Carolina's environmental agency usually stayed out of the public discourse, quietly carrying out the will of the General Assembly and the mandates of states and federal policymakers and the current gubernatorial administration.
That reticence has stopped recently within Gov. Pat McCrory's recently renamed Department of Environmental Quality.
The agency has become more vocal over the past several months in promoting legislation and defending its regulatory philosophy through litigation, newspaper columns, press releases and technology. A video released this month featured strong words from a top administrator sticking up for the General Assembly's annual regulatory overhaul bill that McCrory signed into law.
News stories have been "riddled with misinformation about the Regulatory Reform Act. I'm here to set the record straight," Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder says. "Environmental special interest groups are fearmongering to further their political agenda, and the Regulatory Reform Act is at the center of their campaign."
John Evans, the department's chief deputy secretary, has worked under Democratic and Republican administrations. He said recent high-profile issues warrant more public discussion, such as federal power plant regulations and coal ash cleanup, which the agency began talking about more forcefully last year. But Evans said the department also is pushing back to what he considers unmatched and undeserved criticism since McCrory, a Republican, became governor.
The department has undertaken "a more concerted effort to get information and more accurate information to the citizens," Evans said in an interview. To nongovernmental environmental groups, Evans added, the department's activities "seemed to not be a problem in this state until January 2013."
Environmental advocates argue that's because McCrory is reversing gains for clean air and water by signing bills from fellow Republicans at the General Assembly favoring industry.
"They are being more aggressive in terms of working to get out in the public eye their version of the story," said Dave Rogers, state director of Environment North Carolina. "Obviously, we disagree with their version of the story on almost every issue."
Other signs of the more confrontational approach include:
— An August newspaper column by DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart criticizing Attorney General Roy Cooper for his stand over the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's final rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions. McCrory's department entered a lawsuit challenging the proposed regulations as overreach. Cooper, a Democrat running for governor next year, did not.
— An August news release accusing Duke Energy and the Southern Environmental Law Center of a "seemingly cozy relationship" to take away public participation in decision-making on whether coal ash sites should be added to the state's priority cleanup list.
— A September column from Reeder arguing it was Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue's administration that went light on Duke Energy on enforcing coal ash regulations.
"It does seem to be a different tone, and from outside it seems more political and more ideological than it has been in the past," said Robin Smith, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, DEQ's predecessor agency.
Evans said it may sound more political because it's responding to accusations he contends originates from politics.
House Majority Leader Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, said he's got no problems with DEQ's campaign, which he says reinforces efforts to balance environmental protection with economic prosperity. Hager said burdensome regulation has been added on for decades, and it's time to "bring it back to the center."
But Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson and a former national Sierra Club president, said he's disappointed with what he considers the "politicization" coming out of the agency, which he argues began after van der Vaart succeeded John Skvarla last January.
"It's not a shift that I'm particularly comfortable with," McGrady said.
While Evans said van der Vaart isn't behind the public affairs push back, the secretary "is very serious about setting the scientific record straight."