DAY 8

Break up the agency, critics say

sfretwell@thestate.com, jmonk@thestate.comNovember 23, 2008 

  • NAVIGATING THE SERIES

    The federal government is issuing fines.

    The courts are issuing reprimands.

    And South Carolinians increasingly are critical of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

    Learn more about the agency’s failure to lead on some of the biggest health and environmental issues affecting South Carolina’s future.

    We’ll introduce you to six people involved with those issues who say the department has let them down.

    SUNDAY

    State regulators have given polluters breaks, withheld information from the public, pushed development over the protection of natural resources and angered residents from Greenville to Charleston. Has the agency that’s supposed to safeguard the environment and our health lost its way?

    MONDAY

    Three years ago, Tom Wood, a widower, teacher and Navy veteran, moved to a remote spot in Marlboro County thinking he would live out his days in peace. That was before a waste company selected a site a few miles from his house for a proposed landfill that would take in up to 1.4 million tons of garbage a year, much of it from out of state. State regulations let companies build mega-landfills.

    TUESDAY

    Locked in a government storage room were the records Bob Guild needed to make his case against a leaking nuclear waste landfill. But when the Columbia lawyer asked to see them, he was given only a single folder. “I said, ‘Where is everything else?’ They said, ‘It’s all trade secrets,’” Guild recalled of his visit to state environmental control offices. Letting companies shield certain records from public view is wrong when people’s health and the environment are involved, Guild said.

    WEDNESDAY

    Most of his life, except when he was a soldier in Vietnam, Randy Stone ate fish he caught near his home about four times a week, a pound or two each time. But what Stone loves probably gave him mercury poisoning, his doctor said. There were no warning signs posted at the creeks where he fished. So he didn’t suspect anything was wrong until he got dizzy, his hair started falling out and he began to lose his memory. “This is something you can’t see and you can’t feel,” he said.

    THURSDAY

    Hilton Head Island Councilman John Safay says it’s a bad idea to build huge homes on erosion-scarred beaches. But more than anything, Safay is frustrated the Department of Health and Environmental Control is letting it happen. On Hilton Head, he hopes, it will stop. “It defies the imagination,” Safay said. “We had put our faith in these people to do the right thing.”

    FRIDAY

    Bud Fairey was fresh out of law school, and his aunt in Orangeburg needed his help. Ongoing underground pollution was keeping her from selling land she owned that was once home to an Exxon gas station. State regulators told her all underground fuel storage tanks had been removed. But Fairey found out regulators had taken Exxon’s word for it that the tanks were gone. In the end, Exxon paid $30 million to make the problem — and Fairey — go away.

    SATURDAY

    Four miles from Wanda Harris’ house is a Port of Charleston terminal where ships and trucks pick up and drop off goods. Five miles in another direction is where state regulators have OK’d construction of another port terminal, Charleston’s sixth. Harris and others aren’t happy with the state’s choice of a site. Environmentalists say the expected pollution could put the Holy City out of compliance with federal air quality regulations. Harris’ worries are more immediate: Her daughter Ashley has asthma.

    WRAPPING UP: A CALL TO ACTION

    Five things you can do, five things lawmakers can do, five things DHEC's chief would like to see done. Plus, five actions to watch in the near future to see for yourself if DHEC can change.

  • How these stories were reported

    Over eight months, reporters Sammy Fretwell and John Monk interviewed more than 200 people, filed dozens of requests for information and reviewed thousands of pages of public documents.

    The result is this eight-day special report.

    Fretwell specializes in environmental issues for The State newspaper. For the past 14 years, he has covered air, water and land issues, from the beaches to the mountains. He has won many writing awards.

    Monk is an award-winning investigative reporter who reports on a variety of issues for The State. His most recent in-depth work was on South Carolina’s illegal drug trade.

    Tim Dominick has won dozens of state and regional awards in his 27 years as a professional photographer. He has worked for The State for 25 years.

Troubles at the state Department of Health and Environmental Control are prompting calls for a new environmental protection agency and more accountability to safeguard South Carolina’s landscape and public health.

Some conservationists and lawmakers say DHEC should be separated into at least two departments, one for the environment and one for health. That would give both environmental and health regulators more focus, proponents say.

“It badly needs to be split,” said Dana Beach, director of the influential S.C. Coastal Conservation League. Beach said some of the state’s major conservation groups are preparing an opinion piece for South Carolina newspapers that will call for a DHEC breakup.

Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, and some other lawmakers say the department’s responsibilities are so varied that it’s difficult for the agency to do everything well. Neal introduced a bill several years ago to reorganize DHEC, but it didn’t pass the Legislature.

“It’s about being able to focus the resources at hand,” Neal said.

Some top business leaders, including Lewis Gossett of the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance, oppose splitting DHEC into two agencies. They argue that health and environment are a natural fit in one department.

“We think the two are inextricably linked,’’ Gossett said.

Agency spokesman Thom Berry said DHEC officials also oppose splitting the agency.

“It’s the better fit for us,’’ Berry said.

DHEC, South Carolina’s fifth-largest agency, has been under scrutiny for missteps that have surfaced recently.

Among them were the agency’s failure to quickly resolve problems this past summer at a wastewater plant that was later found spilling sewage into Columbia’s Saluda River. DHEC also has drawn fire in recent years for failing to divulge details about leaks at a nuclear waste landfill near Barnwell and an industrial plant in Myrtle Beach, and for not protecting the drinking water of a working class neighborhood in lower Richland County.

While some people say DHEC’s problems relate to a lack of aggressive leadership, others say restructuring the agency would make a big difference.

“It’s a structure designed to create failure; it’s a Byzantine structure,” Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, told a radio audience in Columbia last week.

DHEC is overseen by a part-time, seven-member board appointed by the governor. The board sets policy, hears permit disputes and hires the commissioner, who runs the day-to-day operations of the department. Courson said a better structure would be to put the governor directly in charge.

Courson told radio listeners last week he hoped to talk with Gov. Mark Sanford about DHEC.

A Sanford spokesman told The State the governor favors reform.

That could take one of two general approaches: dividing DHEC into two or more branches or making it a cabinet agency with a direct line of accountability to the governor, said spokesman Joel Sawyer.

“We don’t know the best way to get it done, and we’d be happy to have conversations with the General Assembly. More accountability never hurts,” Sawyer said.

Several years ago, Sanford proposed putting the environmental side of DHEC under the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, and the health branch under Health and Human Services.

“The easiest solution would be to make it a cabinet agency under the governor,” Sawyer said.

South Carolina is one of about a half-dozen states that combine health and environmental services into a single agency.

Unlike other large state agencies in South Carolina, DHEC is in charge of hundreds of different programs. Its responsibilities range from issuing water and air pollution permits to regulating tattoo parlors to deciding whether hospitals should be certified for certain types of surgery.

Founded in 1973, DHEC today has about 4,200 employees and a $578 million annual budget.

Environmental lawyer Jimmy Chandler and Beach said they are warming to the idea of making DHEC a cabinet agency directly under the governor’s control. DHEC’s part-time board has difficulty keeping up with all the issues, they said. And the staff is too sensitive to legislative pressure, they said.

“I always thought a citizen board was good for the citizens,” Chandler said. “But we have a citizens board now that’s as good as its ever been. And the board is being run by the staff — and the legislature is running the staff.”

Although he doesn’t want to see the agency split, Gossett, president of the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance, also said he’d like to see DHEC become a Cabinet agency under the governor.

Neal, Courson and state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, said the Legislature should examine closely DHEC’s effectiveness when lawmakers return for the 2009 session in January.

Courson, a leading Senate conservationist, said if efforts to reform DHEC fail, he expects the agency’s stewardship to be an issue in the next governor’s race.

Some DHEC-watchers say that’s a good idea.

As it stands, DHEC Commissioner Earl Hunter has too many issues to deal with, said C.C. “Cotton” Harness, a former state coastal division lawyer whose clients now include developers and coastal landowners. Harness is among those who say DHEC’s coastal protection division has become so ineffective that it should become its own agency — independent of politics in Columbia — as the division once was.

“Earl Hunter, in my view, is riding a beast that cannot be managed” under its current structure and without more resources, Harness said.

Norm Brunswig, who heads the state Audubon Society, said DHEC’s problems may be more basic. The agency’s charter suggests that DHEC must also consider the economy as part of its mission.

“It’s almost an impossible job,” said Brunswig, a nationally known conservationist. “You either clean up the environment or you promote development.”

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537. Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

The State is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service