S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board chairman Allen Amsler has quit the position after seven years at the agency, one of South Carolina’s largest and most controversial departments.
The Columbia businessman’s departure is the latest in a series of high-level DHEC personnel changes, including last year’s resignation of director Catherine Heigel and the departure of its water bureau chief, David Baize.
Amsler could not be reached for comment Friday, but his resignation comes in the midst of a search for Heigel’s replacement and at a time when the board is examining whether to crack down on mega farms that use groundwater for irrigation.
With Amsler’s departure, the eight-member board is down to five members. Gov. Henry McMaster has picked two candidates to become new board members, but they must be confirmed by the state Senate. A governor’s office spokesman said Amsler was not asked to leave, but that McMaster is now searching for a replacement to fill his job as board chairman.
“I have had the privilege to work with a talented group of board members and staff that has done an excellent job of serving the state and the agency,’’ Amsler said in an announcement made to agency staff last week. “I am very proud of them all and what they accomplish as a team every day.’’
DHEC, with about 3,500 employees, is one of South Carolina’s biggest departments. It has a wide range of responsibilities that touch virtually every South Carolina resident in one way or the other. Among other things, DHEC issues birth certificates, issues pollution discharge permits, regulates tattoo parlors, checks water quality, and oversees hospital expansions.
As a regulatory agency, its decisions often bring biting criticism from those who say it is not aggressive enough. Others say DHEC is too aggressive in regulating private businesses. The board oversees the agency, deciding on DHEC policy and ruling on environmental and health permit disputes.
Amsler, an executive with McCrory Construction in Columbia, has been at the helm as the board took a more conservative shift under Gov. Nikki Haley.
McMaster, who replaced Haley last year, did not immediately choose to make replacements on the board, but has since submitted the names of two candidates. Those candidates are Lexington businesswoman Seema Shrivastava-Patel and Rick Toomey, a former Lowcountry hospital executive, according to the governor’s office.
“We are working toward filling the positions as soon as we can,’’ McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said. “We’ve got two great candidates in and we look forward to submitting them to the Senate to confirm.’’
Under Amsler, agency board meetings have at times been filled with questions about whether environmental regulations are needed. The board also has overturned staff decisions against property owners accused of hurting the environment.
One of the biggest issues to surface while Amsler served as chairman was the board’s attempt to hire Eleanor Kitzman, a friend and campaign donor to then-Gov. Haley, even though she had no experience in environmental and health matters. The proposed hiring of Kitzman sparked an uproar in the Legislature and she ultimately withdrew her name. The board later chose Catherine Heigel to run the agency. She was praised for straightening out numerous problems at DHEC.
Perhaps the biggest issue facing DHEC’s board now is who it will choose to replace Heigel as director. Heigel left last summer and the board has been trying to find a replacement. More than 100 people have applied.
The agency also is looking for a new director of its water bureau, which is overseeing the plan to more tightly control large groundwater withdrawals by mega farms and industries. In April, the DHEC board is expected to decide on whether to impose tighter restrictions on groundwater.