Catherine Heigel, the former director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, has been named president of Carolina Water Service, the troubled utility with a history of illegally releasing wastewater into the Saluda River.
Heigel will take the post Feb. 1, Carolina Water Service said in a news release Tuesday.
“We are excited to bring Catherine on board to lead Carolina Water Service,” said Lisa Sparrow, chief executive of Carolina Water’s parent company, Utilities Inc. “Her extensive utility and regulatory background, as well as her transformational leadership experience, will benefit our customers and the communities we serve and be instrumental to CWS’s strategic growth in the future.”
Heigel, a former Duke Energy executive, ran DHEC for two years, drawing praise from many for the job she did at the agency. Among other things, she helped fight for increased money for the agency, including for DHEC’s understaffed and sometimes ineffective dam-safety program.
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While Heigel was at DHEC, the agency fined Carolina Water $80,000 last spring for illegal discharges to the Saluda River. DHEC also started the S.C. Adopt-a-Stream program that relies on citizens to help monitor water quality in the state’s lakes, rivers and streams.
“I look forward to joining CWS and working to deliver on the company’s commitment to providing safe and reliable drinking water and wastewater services in South Carolina,” Heigel said in the Carolina Water news release.
Carolina Water spokesman Robert Yanity, an ex-DHEC employee, said Heigel’s hiring was announced to workers Tuesday. Carolina Water Service has about 50 employees and about 28,000 customers statewide, including roughly 15,000 in the Columbia area.
Heigel’s decision to take the job comes after years of complaints by customers and river advocates about the utility’s drinking water and sewer services. In addition to complaints about bills, the utility has been cited for numerous environmental violations across the state.
During a 20-year period extending to 2013, state regulators hit Utilities Inc.-owned companies with 55 enforcement orders for water and sewage system violations, The State newspaper reported in October 2013.
That is more than any other company or government agency in the state, according to state environmental enforcement records analyzed at the time by The State. The 55 enforcement cases resulted in more than $645,000 in fines against Utilities Inc. companies, including Carolina Water.
One of the company’s biggest issues has been a battle with DHEC and river advocates to stop sewer discharges from the company’s Interstate 20 treatment plant into the Saluda River, a state-designated scenic river known for its trout fishing. The town of Lexington and Carolina Water now are negotiating to close that plant and route its wastewater to a regional sewer system at Cayce.
Carolina Water also has been at odds with DHEC and river advocates over poorly treated sewage in the Saluda River at an Irmo park. Poor treatment resulted in warnings against swimming in the river two years ago.
Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler, whose organization also looks out for the Saluda, said he hopes Heigel will make improvements at Carolina Water that will protect Columbia area rivers. But he said Heigel’s former role as a regulator as late as 2017 is a potential concern.
“That kind of turnover from a regulatory agency to the private sector always raises some questions, and those are ones we’re going to have to keep an eye on,” Stangler said. “If someone thinks about having to go to their old boss with a fine or enforcement, that could influence their thinking. I, certainly, hope that’s not the case.
“But maybe she’ll be able to turn some things around at CWS like she did at DHEC.”