DHEC breakup on the table again

sfretwell@thestate.comNovember 4, 2013 

Catherine Templeton

State health and environmental department workers will be asked if they think their agency should be broken up and split into separate departments after four decades of operating as a single agency.

Catherine Templeton, director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said Monday she favors splitting the agency but will seek comments early next year from her employees, as well as businesses, environmentalists, health care organizations and others. She told The State newspaper last spring that she supported a DHEC breakup.

“I think it’s important to have discussions with the people who know DHEC the best, which is our employees, as well as our customers and stakeholders,” Templeton told the agency’s board. “Beginning in January I’d like to start soliciting comments from our employees and our stakeholders on restructuring DHEC.”

It would be up to the Legislature to split DHEC into an environmental agency and a health department – and it’s likely Templeton’s idea would get pushback from the business community.

In the past, businesses that need environmental and health permits from the department have been cool to the idea, saying the agency works efficiently and that health and environmental issues are intertwined.

“My personal opinion, coming from industry, is I don’t see anything wrong with DHEC the way it is currently constructed,” said agency board member Clarence Batts, a former industry executive in the Upstate. “But if there are reasons to separate it, I’m willing to listen and see what happens. Right now, I’d keep it the way it is.’’

Environmentalists were encouraged by Templeton’s proposal. The agency’s sheer size makes it unwieldy, they said, echoing comments they have made for more than a decade. Conservationists have complained through the years that DHEC is too quick to issue environmental permits and reluctant to aggressively enforce environmental laws. The agency’s environmental division also has a legacy of missteps chronicled in 2008 in The State newspaper.

“We’d certainly revisit this and probably would be inclined to support a split,’’ said Ann Timberlake, director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina.

The department has about 3,100 employees and an overall budget of about $500 million, making it one of South Carolina’s largest agencies. Overseen by a part-time, seven member board, DHEC provides a variety of services. In addition to issuing pollution permits, the agency checks water quality, licenses hospitals, regulates tattoo parlors, monitors air pollution and operates community health clinics.

Unlike most states, South Carolina does not have separate environmental and health departments. DHEC was formed 40 years ago from the merger of the old state Pollution Control Authority and the state Health Department. At the time, boosters of the plan said it made sense after a lengthy dispute over the agencies’ authority over environmental matters.

But Templeton, who took office in 2012, said breaking up the agency could save money and help the public more easily obtain services, rather than having to deal with a bureaucracy created long ago. Templeton said the department’s environment and health divisions effectively “operate as separate agencies’’ that often don’t coordinate with each other.

Her remarks Monday were in sharp contrast to past agency directors who had opposed a split, arguing that it only makes sense to keep health and environment together because many issues are interrelated.

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