Catherine Heigel, director of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, resigned Thursday after engineering an array of changes credited with improving the often-criticized agency during the past two years.
Heigel announced her resignation following a closed door meeting with the DHEC board in Columbia. Department veteran David Wilson, a former hazardous waste bureau director at DHEC, will serve as interim agency director while the board looks for Heigel’s replacement. He takes over Aug. 5, a day after Heigel leaves.
A Greenville resident hired in 2015, Heigel will join Elliott Davis, a Southeast accounting and business advisory firm, as its chief operating officer next month. Heigel, a former Duke Energy executive in the Carolinas, worked as general counsel at Elliott Davis in Greenville before taking the DHEC post in 2015.
Board members and key state officials said they were sorry to see Heigel depart because of the cool and measured way she has run the agency, one of the state’s largest. Her predecessor, current Republican gubernatorial candidate Catherine Templeton, had drawn fire for dismissing scores of employees and hiring others with limited environmental and health experience.
Heigel, 46, said she never intended to stay at DHEC for a long time but took the director’s position to provide public service to the state. Taking a job in Greenville will allow her to spend more time with her three children, all under age 18, Heigel said. She had been discussing her departure for months with board chairman Allen Amsler, she said.
“I’ve managed this for the last two years and I could continue to manage it, but it does take a toll,’’ Heigel told The State newspaper.
DHEC is among South Carolina’s largest agencies with 3,400 workers and a state budget of more than $120 million. Its wide-ranging duties include overseeing hospital expansions, regulating tattoo parlors, checking water and air for pollution, and providing public health services. Decisions on whether to approve activities that affect public health and the environment often make DHEC – and its director – magnets for criticism.
During her two-year stint in the $196,000 director’s job, Heigel beefed up faltering agency programs, increased transparency, worked to improve employee pride and sought to restore public confidence in the department, several current and former state officials said. She held a regular series of town hall style meetings with employees and said she made it a point to encourage workers to stand up to those who attempt to unduly influence agency decisions. Her most recent employee evaluation by the board said she had done “an exemplary job.’’
“In the past, because so much of what we deal with can be politically sensitive, there has been a hesitancy to take on tough issues,’’ she said.
Heigel, 46, guided the agency through two disastrous fall storms, both of which taxed department resources as flooding and high winds wrecked the countryside.
After a historic 2015 storm caused dozens of dams to burst in the Columbia area and exposed weaknesses in DHEC’s dam safety program, Heigel led efforts to evaluate hundreds of the structures across the state and to increase the program’s budget. Lawmakers later added money for more staff members to increase inspections so dams would be less likely to fail in the future. Inspections before the 2015 storm had been lacking and many dams were in poor shape.
Under Heigel, the agency also has initiated efforts to limit large withdrawals of groundwater in a seven-county area between Lexington and Aiken, where water siphoning mega- farms have set up shop in recent years. While she received praise by many rural residents, some mega-farmers have questioned why DHEC plans to oversee their withdrawals. Heigel also raised eyebrows in hiring a former Duke Energy colleague to temporarily run the department’s water bureau.
State Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, said Heigel displayed courage as director of the agency, overseeing a decision to deny a pollution discharge permit for a utility with a history of contamination in the lower Saluda River.
“It will be a loss,’’ Smith said. “She’s been a great leader for the agency and worked hard. She has boosted morale amongst the staff and given focus to the agency’s mission.’’
Former state Sen. Joel Lourie, one of DHEC’s harshest critics before Heigel took over, said Heigel made improvements that were long overdue.
“DHEC was in pretty rough shape before she took over,’’ the Columbia Democrat said. “Morale was very low, turnover was high and the agency was in disarray. She has done an amazing job, particularly during the time of the flood, and has served our state with great integrity and honor.’’
DHEC board chairman Allen Amsler, a Republican, called Heigel an “exceptional leader.’’
"She set a clear vision for the agency, built a talented executive leadership team, and instituted key fiscal, operational and governance protocols that will ensure the agency's continued success into the future,’’ Amsler said.
Amsler said the board will retain an outside firm to begin a nationwide search for a new director to “continue the positive momentum.’’ Heigel said she has offered to help the board with a search for her replacement.
The current board was appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley. Heigel took the DHEC job after board efforts to hire an associate of then-Gov. Haley backfired following Templeton’s departure early in 2015.
“This is a large organization with a very diverse mission, and what they need to be looking for in the next leader is someone who can motivate employees, set a clear vision, hold people accountable and celebrate success well,’’ Heigel said. “Fundamentally, what they need is a good leader, a good manager. I don’t think it is as important that this person have a background in public health or environmental protection, as it is that they are a strong leader.’’
Staff Writer Jamie Self contributed to this story