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.