Conservationists push for crackdown on repeat polluters in SC

sfretwell@thestate.comNovember 6, 2013 

About 25 percent of the 4,600 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.

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  • WHAT THE NEWSPAPER FOUND

    • About 1,100 of 4,700 companies and governments cited for state environmental violations in the past 20 years have had more than one offense.

    • About 200 violators had five or more citations, including 15 that broke the law 15 times or more.

    • At least 120 of those with five or more violations have had violations during the past five years.

— Companies that repeatedly break pollution laws should be punished more harshly each time they’re cited for violating the rules, instead of getting off with light penalties, conservationists say.

The Conservation Voters of South Carolina is discussing the need for a new law requiring a 10 percent increase in fines for repeat offenses. The requirement would give direction to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

“Let’s challenge our conservation legislators to introduce a ‘Polluter Justice’ bill next year to require DHEC to increase the fine 10% for every repeat enforcement action,” Conservation Voters director Ann Timberlake said in an email last week to environmentalists. “Let’s get serious about ending pollution of our clear air and clean water.”

Timberlake’s email came in response to stories last month in The State newspaper that found nearly a quarter of those violating environmental laws during the past two decades are repeat offenders. The newspaper’s findings were based on S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control enforcement records.

Records analyzed by the newspaper showed about 1,100 of approximately 4,700 companies and governments sanctioned for breaking pollution laws had done so multiple times. But the average fines in South Carolina are less than $9,000 – even though some laws allow penalties in excess of $25,000 per day.

In an interview with The State, Timberlake said the idea of increasing fines 10 percent for each repeat offense is a starting point in what needs to be a healthy discussion.

“We have got to have less pollution,” Timberlake said. “There is apparently a good bit of leeway given to DHEC in the way they interpret things.”

Andy Yasinsac, a former DHEC wastewater official now active in the Sierra Club, suggested doubling the fine for repeat offenses.

“Maybe what I say is a little extreme, but 10 percent is very minimal, hardly meeting inflation,” he said in an email response to Timberlake.

But requiring increases in fines for repeat violations could be a hard sell in the Legislature, where powerful business groups hold great influence with lawmakers.

Lewis Gossett, who heads the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance, said his organization’s members are committed to environmental protection and work hard to avoid violations. Some companies with multiple enforcement cases are trying to comply with the law, but the nature of their manufacturing processes and the number of discharge permits increases the chances of violations, he said.

“This is about show more than anything else,” Gossett said of Timberlake’s idea. Repeat offenses “really are not what folks I work and deal with are all about.”

DHEC director Catherine Templeton said this week that agency enforcement staff members will take decisive action when warranted, including fining someone more heavily for repeat violations.

Still, Templeton said agency enforcement officials have sometimes in the past been reluctant to classify offenses as repeat violations – meaning they would not increase fines.

She said staffers have reasoned that “‘You had a release of ‘X,’ so here is your fine. Then you had a release of ‘Y,’ so that is not a repeat offense.’ But if you release, you release.”

DHEC is now examining whether to revise its enforcement policy in light of concerns about a Sumter poultry slaughterhouse that incurred three different wastewater discharge sanctions in five years, but whose penalties got lighter with each violation.

Whether it’s a new law or better DHEC policies, environmental enforcement experts and lawyers said something needs to change in light of the number of repeat violators in South Carolina.

Veteran environmental lawyer Bob Guild said one law passed several years ago was supposed to curb repeated wastewater discharge violations but has not worked as expected.

He and others said tough fines are sometimes the only way to get polluting industries and governments to obey the law. The amount companies or governments saved in avoiding compliance with the law should be a factor in raising fines, he said.

Guild said a good example is the city of Columbia. The city failed to adequately upgrade its water and sewer system for decades, despite 16 DHEC enforcement cases from the early 1990s through 2010, records show. During that time, DHEC issued less than $140,000 in fines.

This year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in, hit the city with $1.5 million in penalties and ordered Columbia to make upgrades to its leaky sewer system.

Columbia’s enforcement cases, however, are small compared to those of one national utility, the newspaper found. Since the 1990s, DHEC has slapped Utilities Inc. with more than 50 enforcement orders. But some of the companies’ water and sewer plants have continued to operate and incur violations, records show.

State Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, said legislators may need to consider a bill requiring tougher penalties.

“The public thinks DHEC is this all powerful agency with all kinds of teeth to enforce things, but the reality is that is not the case,” Smith said. “The reality ought to follow the expectation that health and safety standards are in place and repeat offenders ought to be held accountable.”

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