South Carolina’s effort to enforce environmental laws hasn’t stopped companies and government agencies from repeatedly breaking rules to protect the air, land and water during the past two decades.
Nearly 25 percent of the 4,700 businesses and governments cited for violating environmental laws since 1991 have done so multiple times, and in some cases, their failures to follow the rules are continuing today, according to civil enforcement records analyzed by The State newspaper.
Repeat offenders in South Carolina include power companies, local wastewater utilities, military bases, private shipyards, national garbage corporations, major cement factories, farm companies and public universities, according to Department of Health and Environmental Control records.
Sometimes, businesses and governments with multiple violations have threatened public health and safety by failing to manage toxic or explosive materials in accordance with the rules, records show. In one instance, Clemson University didn’t adequately protect the campus from explosions or fires from hazardous materials – five years after state regulators fined the school for not properly managing hazardous substances.
Other times, companies and governments repeatedly have dumped raw or poorly treated sewage into rivers where people kayak and fish. One national corporation, Utilities Inc., owns companies that have been fined more than 50 times for violating water and wastewater laws since the mid-1990s, including one Lowcountry sewage plant with a 20-year history of noncompliance issues.
In addition to Utilities Inc., those with the most repeat violations that also have had troubles with DHEC in recent years include the U.S. military, Giant Cement/Giant Resource Recovery, SCE&G, Pickens County and Detyens Shipyards, according to records examined by The State in DHEC’s enforcement database.
Each has at least 20 violations, including one or more in the past five years, the newspaper found in examining the DHEC data.
Not all of the repeat violations in DHEC’s database are considered threats to the environment. Some are “paperwork” offenses that companies liken to traffic or parking tickets. Companies and governments reached by the newspaper said they’re committed to environmental protection.
But repeat violations also are nothing to ignore, despite pledges to do better in the future, said several enforcement experts and lawyers who questioned whether South Carolina’s effort to punish polluters is effective enough.
Anyone who shows a pattern of breaking environmental laws warrants scrutiny and possibly tougher penalties, they said.
Ilan Levin, associate director of the Washington-headquartered Environmental Integrity Project, said fines for those who break environmental laws need to be high enough to prevent multiple offenses.
“Those fines have to be a deterrent,” Levin said. “The only purpose, in my view, of having penalties is to deter future noncompliance. If the fines are too puny, then they have the exact opposite effect of what they’re supposed to do.”
Records examined by The State show the average environmental fine in South Carolina is less than $9,000, even though many federal pollution laws allow maximum penalties in excess of $25,000 per day.
Levin and former DHEC air pollution enforcement chief Dick Sharpe said paying a penalty sometimes is cheaper than spending money to upgrade outdated industrial plants or government facilities.
“I suspect that some companies build this in as a cost of doing business,” Sharpe said. “It’s not anything you could ever pin on anybody, but I think it’s certainly true.”
DHEC also has difficulty hitting parent corporations with heavy fines for the misdeeds of companies they own, agency director Catherine Templeton said. The agency has difficulty fining the parent companies because their subsidiaries hold the permits, she said.
Even so, Templeton and industry officials said companies aren’t trying to break the rules but genuinely want to follow the law. Industries invest heavily in training, said Lewis Gossett, who heads the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance.
“We spend more time and money on this than just about anybody,” Gossett said of training and environmental compliance efforts. “It is a culture.”
Gossett, a former state labor department chief, said certain types of industries have more of a challenge complying with the law than others because of the nature of their operations. Some industrial processes require certain pollution discharge permits, while other processes do not, he said.
Templeton downplayed the significance of the number of repeat violations during the past 20 years, saying it’s hard to compare fines because the offenses are so different. Templeton, who has initiated major changes since becoming director in 2012, said she has been impressed with DHEC’s enforcement effort.
The goal is not to assess penalties, but to make sure companies and governments follow the law, she said. The agency sometimes pushes violators to modernize their plants rather than smacking them with heavy fines, records show.
“Our goal is compliance – and enforcement and penalties are one tool in that toolbox,” Templeton said. “There is a balance there.”
Like Gossett, Templeton said companies or governments with more environmental permits have a greater potential for a violation, even if they try to comply.
Criminal prosecution of environmental laws occurs from time to time in South Carolina, but most environmental cases are made under civil and administrative laws that rely on fines to enforce the rules.
Since 1991, DHEC has used that civil authority to fine violators more than $60 million, according to the agency’s enforcement database examined by The State newspaper. But about 1,100 of the 4,700 violators have been hit more than once for breaking environmental laws since 1991, the newspaper’s analysis found.
That includes some 200 companies and governments that have been fined anywhere from five to 55 times since 1991, when DHEC began keeping a database of environmental enforcement actions, records show.
In some cases, those that have broken environmental laws five times or more have either cleaned up their acts or have shut down, a sign that some enforcement actions work. A court case forced Laidlaw/Safety-Kleen, a company that ran a hazardous waste dump on the shores of Lake Marion, to close the landfill in 2000 after years of battles with DHEC that involved 22 enforcement cases with fines totaling $2.7 million.
Still, more than 100 companies and governments fined at least five times since the early 1990s continue to run into trouble with the agency, The State newspaper found.
DHEC’s database includes most environmental enforcement actions in the past two decades, except for those taken by its coastal division. The database contains some inconsistencies, so it is possible other repeat violators exist that the newspaper was unable to find.
Utilities Inc., a national corporation that owns water and sewer companies from Nevada to the East Coast, leads South Carolina with 55 violations for companies it oversees. Those include repeat violations at water and sewage plants in the Columbia, Charlotte and Georgetown areas.
One of the most troublesome issues the company has faced is what to do with a sewage plant in Georgetown County, which is operated by a Utilities Inc. division called Carolina Water Service.
DHEC fined operators of the plant $305,500 in 1994 for wastewater discharge violations and for failing to hook on to a public utility system that could better handle the sewage. Despite assurances by Carolina Water in 1993 that it would connect the system to a public utility, the transfer never occurred. And at times over the past 20 years, the plant has released elevated levels of pollutants near Georgetown, records show.
Last year, DHEC hit Carolina Water Service with a $16,000 fine for failing to limit the release of lead, copper and oxygen-demanding pollutants into the water.
Rick Durham, a regional vice president for Utilities Inc., said his company is working to upgrade water and sewage systems across South Carolina but that is taking time and money. The company acquired its South Carolina holdings more than a decade ago, after many of the sewage and water plants began to run into trouble with DHEC. But Durham downplayed the environmental impacts of the violations.
“Our facilities are small and have had an insignificant impact on water quality,” he said.
Other repeat violators
Battles with DHEC aren’t unique to Utilities Inc.
Those with the most repeat enforcement actions from the 1990s that also have had violations during the past five years include:
• The U.S. military, 40 enforcement orders. The military’s holdings include bases or other operations in communities across the state, including Columbia, Sumter and Beaufort. One of the most recent military violations occurred in 2009, when Fort Jackson failed to use licensed workers to remove potentially deadly asbestos at the basic training facility in Richland County. The $12,000 fine and enforcement action followed a series of asbestos violations at Fort Jackson in 2004, in which DHEC issued a $20,000 fine.
Mark Wright, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense, said the military takes its environmental responsibilities “extremely seriously, and we do our due diligence.”
• Giant Cement Co./Giant Resource Recovery, 24 enforcement orders. The corporation operates a cement plant in Dorchester County and a sister facility that treats and stores hazardous waste in Sumter County. In 2010, DHEC issued a $55,000 hazardous waste fine for a series of problems at the Sumter site, including the failure to manage waste so that “it does not produce uncontrolled flammable fumes or gases” that could cause explosions and threaten public health. Four years earlier, DHEC issued a $63,000 fine against the same facility for hazardous waste and water pollution violations. Those included a failure by Giant Resource to prevent any “sudden” release of pollutants.
Giant officials noted that the Dorchester cement plant and its Sumter chemical business perform different functions but that both facilities have been commended by DHEC in recent inspection reports. The company blames some past enforcement actions by DHEC on record-keeping requirements. Still, it said the company has hired new environmental managers and increased employee training. “Our most recent inspections speak for themselves and (show that) … our efforts toward compliance are working and are effective,” Giant said in an email.
• SCE&G, 21 enforcement orders. The power company serves the Columbia and Charleston areas with nuclear, coal, natural gas and hydro plants. DHEC has fined SCE&G $10,000 in the past three years for violations at the company’s nuclear plant in Fairfield County, including an enforcement action for allowing a “loose radioactive foreign object” in a shipping cask in 2011.
SCE&G says it has multiple permits for different power plants, but notes that most of its violations happened years ago and that the most recent have been corrected. “Most of the violations … only three of which have occurred in the last nine years, have been minor in nature and resulted from information contained in our reports to DHEC,” spokesman Robert Yanity said. “In all of these cases, the cause of the violation, whether it has been procedural or equipment related, (has) been corrected to the satisfaction of DHEC.”
• Detyens Shipyards, 20 enforcement orders. The Charleston-area shipyard has been fined for a series of different issues, ranging from wastewater violations to air pollution. One of the largest fines the company has incurred in the past two decades – $28,000 – resulted from hazardous waste violations. The 2010 enforcement order said Detyens failed to minimize the “possibility of fire, explosion, or any unplanned sudden or non-sudden release … which could threaten human health or the environment.” Six years earlier, DHEC cited Detyens for failing to use precautions during an abrasive blasting operation.
A Detyens official did not provide comment when called and emailed by The State.
• Pickens County, 20 enforcement orders. The Upstate county operates a wastewater treatment system, as well as provides other services. In 2010 and 2011, the county received two different fines totaling $9,700 for failing limits on ammonia-nitrogen discharges at its Eighteen Mile Creek treatment plant. That followed a $29,700 fine in 2004, also for failing to meet discharge limits on ammonia, nitrogen and other contaminants at its Liberty-Roper plant.
Brian O’Kelley, director of the Pickens County Public Service Commission, said the county has closed about 10 troublesome sewage systems and believes its compliance record will improve. The county has spent about $45 million on upgrades since 1995, he said.
Clemson, Columbia threats
Records show the majority of those hit with DHEC enforcement penalties multiple times are private companies. But other government agencies such as the one in Pickens also have had challenges obeying environmental laws.
Clemson University leads all state colleges with 10 DHEC enforcement orders since 1991, according to DHEC’s enforcement database. The University of South Carolina has nine, including a series of repeat violations of asbestos rules, according to department records.
In Clemson’s case, the university paid a $50,000 hazardous waste fine in 2012 for failing to limit “the possibility of fire, explosion, or any unplanned sudden or non-sudden release” of toxic material at the campus, according to DHEC records reviewed by The State. Clemson’s 2012 hazardous waste sanction followed a $7,000 DHEC fine in 2007 for failing to properly seal hazardous waste containers.
School officials said they have reorganized their environmental health and safety efforts to improve oversight, but they also said “zero violations may not be realistic” because Clemson is a large research university with many functions and a place where students and personnel change frequently. Despite DHEC’s assertion that the 2012 violations posed a risk of explosion or fire, the university disputed that.
“The issues cited in 2012 generally fell into one of three categories – labeling, storage and paperwork,” the university said in an email to The State. “They did not result in damage or threat to the environment or public health.”
The city of Columbia is another government that has had plenty of recent troubles, incurring a $1.5 million penalty from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this year after about 20 years of enforcement actions from DHEC.
In Columbia’s case, the 16 enforcement orders mostly involve its water and sewage plants, stretching from 1992 until 2010. Taxpayers have criticized the city for diverting money from its water and sewage fund through the years for other projects, rather than using the money to fix its deteriorating utility system.
Now, the EPA’s order forces Columbia to make improvements to its leak-prone sewage system during the next 10 to 12 years, rather than doing the upgrades at its own pace. Columbia officials said many state violations result from outdated water and sewage pipes and equipment.
“This is not unique to Columbia, this is every utility,” said Joey Jaco, who oversees the city’s wastewater and water system.
Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA enforcement official who directs the Environmental Integrity Project, said states sometimes need help from the federal government to drive home the importance of complying with pollution laws to repeat violators.
“You get pressure at the state level to lay off,” Schaeffer said. “I’m not saying that’s what’s going on in South Carolina, except to say that there is some of that in every state.”