Bill Could Give van der Vaart Veto

An obscure bill with a generic title could produce an environmental catastrophe for North Carolina. House Bill 991, “ALJ Authority to Void Rules,” is a powerful example of how much election outcomes matter to our environment.

The bill would empower state administrative law judges (ALJs) to strike down a challenged state administrative rule if ALJs decide it exceeds state law as applied in a particular case. For example, if a group of developers successfully challenges one detail in one case in how wetlands are protected by our state, ALJs could toss out critical rules protecting water quality across the board. 

Outcomes like that are more than a remote possibility. The official who assigns cases to ALJs and would effectively wield this new power is the Chief Administrative Law Judge of the state courts’ Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). The OAH is a body of special judges who conduct initial hearings on several categories of state agency rules and permits, including the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Currently, the Chief ALJ is Donald van der Vaart, who became notorious as DEQ secretary under Gov. Pat McCrory. In that position, van der Vaart actively worked to undermine public health and environmental protections on a broad front. Many environmental advocates regard van der Vaart as the most pro-polluter DEQ secretary in modern North Carolina history.

And this is why elections matter. Van der Vaart lost his DEQ job when Roy Cooper was elected governor in 2016. However, van der Vaart was appointed to his current post by North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby. In 2020, Newby defeated then-Chief Justice Cheri Beasley by just 401 votes out of more than 5.5 million cast statewide. 

H991 is currently waiting for consideration in the House Judiciary Committee. If it passes, we’ll be looking to Gov. Cooper to veto it and for pro-environment legislators to uphold his veto. And we’re counting on North Carolina voters to elect enough pro-environment legislators this fall who will continue to uphold Gov. Cooper’s vetoes of terrible bills like H991 next year.

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