RALEIGH — The head of North Carolina’s key business-recruiting agency is stepping down to be replaced by the environment agency head, Gov. Pat McCrory said Tuesday.
Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker is leaving at the end of this month and being succeeded by John Skvarla, who has headed the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Both will have been in their positions for the first half of McCrory’s four-year term.
Decker and McCrory are former executives at Duke Energy. Skvarla is a Raleigh businessman who described the environment agency’s role as being a “partner” to those it regulates, which he described as “customers.” McCrory says he’s looking at candidates inside and outside the agency to become the next DENR head.
McCrory praised Decker’s role in reducing North Carolina’s unemployment rate from one of the highest in the country and restoring the number of jobs statewide to a level not seen since the Great Recession hit in 2007. He credited her with a new focus on attracting jobs to rural communities.
“Sharon Decker has made a difference in this state,” McCrory said before choking up. “She’s been the best salesman I’ve ever seen for this state.”
Skvarla didn’t say what would change after he takes over the Commerce Department next month.
“Let me find out where the light switches are,” he said.
In a letter to the editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh last December, Skvarla bragged that within a few months after taking office he had turned the state’s environmental agency from “North Carolina’s No. 1 obstacle of resistance into a customer-friendly juggernaut.”
A federal grand jury last spring began looking into potential criminal charges triggered by a Duke Energy coal ash spill in February that coated 70 miles of the Dan River with toxic sludge. Subpoenas sought documents, emails, memos and reports from Duke, DENR and state utilities regulators related to the spill and the state’s oversight of the company’s nearly three dozen other coal ash dumps.
The first batch of subpoenas was issued in February, one day after an Associated Press story raised questions about whether North Carolina regulators had helped shield Duke from a coalition of environmental groups that wanted to sue under the U.S. Clean Water Act to force the company to clean up its coal ash pollution.
Environmentalists said their efforts were stymied by DENR, which used its authority under the federal act to intervene. The state then proposed what environmentalists derided as a “sweetheart deal” where the $50 billion Charlotte-based power company would have paid just $99,111 to settle violations over toxic groundwater leeching from two of its plants with no requirement that it stop the pollution.
That proposed settlement was put on hold after the Dan River spill.
Skvarla and McCrory denied working to benefit Duke, countering that they have been tougher on cleaning up coal ash than previous administrations.
Decker said she will become president of a company that converts films and television news footage into digital formats to make them more easily retrieved and preserved. Nuray Media was started by the founders of Charlotte-based Raycom Sports, which became one of the country’s biggest syndicators of broadcast college basketball and football games.
Decker’s business recruiters offered nearly the maximum of $22.5 million in targeted corporate tax breaks allowed by legislators through next summer, and an oversight board approved them. McCrory said he’d call the General Assembly back to Raleigh before their two-year session starts next month to seek more tax-break funding if a big project promising hundreds of jobs was in a hurry.