Maintaining enough money to prevent landfills from leaking -- and keeping taxpayers off the hook for the cost -- is on Catherine Heigel’s mind as she takes charge at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
In her first interview with The State newspaper since becoming director last week, Heigel said one of the major issues facing DHEC is ensuring that landfills maintain proper cleanup funds. She said the agency is looking at how to improve requirements that landfills post enough money, known as financial assurance, for cleanups and maintenance.
Public concern is growing as state regulators and policy makers have learned in recent years that some landfills didn’t provide enough funding for maintenance after they close. In some cases, taxpayers are having to pay the bill -- instead of the landfill’s owners -- to ensure sites don’t pollute the environment.
“I do think that the financial assurance (issue), as a policy matter, we need to look at that,’’ Heigel said Wednesday, the day before her first DHEC board meeting. “I will tell you that we are as an agency looking, in the spirit of continued improvement, at what we might be able to do better in that regard in terms of oversight.’’
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State taxpayers now face hundreds of millions of dollars in costs in the next century to maintain a closed hazardous waste dump in Sumter County so that it won’t leak into nearby Lake Marion.
At the same time, federal taxpayers are spending more than $1 million to put out a fire at a Chester County landfill, where the owner depleted a cleanup account without the state’s knowledge. Since learning last year that financial assurance money was insufficient for the closed but still smoldering landfill, DHEC has found at least five other waste dumps with inadequate money for maintenance and cleanups.
Heigel’s first week on the job has been busy. She sent an email to the agency’s more than 3,400 employees, pledging an open line of communication and encouraging them to be professional, team players. The email said she plans to put together a leadership team during the next three months. She also has spent much of her time dealing with an E coli outbreak in Greenwood County.
One child has died and at least seven other people have been sickened. The main connection is a child-care center that was closed this week, Heigel said. So far, Heigel said it appears the outbreak is related to human contact and has not spread from the child care center to the surrounding community.
“We feel at this point we’ve got a very contained situation,’’ Heigel said.
The 44-year-old Heigel, who was born in Florence and grew up in Darlington, is a lawyer who ran Duke Energy’s South Carolina division for two years. Her background is in environmental issues. She became DHEC director last week after the Senate overwhelmingly approved her nomination. She replaces Catherine Templeton, who resigned in January following three years on the job. The DHEC director’s job, which pays $154,879, is one of the most high profile in state government. The department, one of the state’s largest, regulates everything from hospital expansions to industrial discharges to air and water. She will commute to work in Columbia from her Greenville home.
Here are excerpts from The State’s interview with Heigel, who also said South Carolina needs to address leaking underground storage tanks. The interview addressed several subjects.
Question: What are the biggest environmental and health issues facing the state that DHEC is going to have to deal with?
Heigel: “In terms of the environmental side, we have a lot of different, very different issues, but the Pinewood situation does raise the question of waste and landfills and the continued oversight, management and remediation into the future. So I think that, at a global level, is something that we’ll be challenged to deal with for some time in the future.’’
“I’ve been very engaged in the management of the E coli response and investigation (in Greenwood). I’ve been very pleased with the team effort and response and information flow on that.’’
Question: Do you consider yourself a manager who delegates authority to employees and lets them make decisions, or do you see yourself as being more hands on in those final decisions?
Heigel: “My role is to set the vision and to make sure that we have the right people and the right processes in place to accomplish that vision. Then to empower people to act in furtherance of that mission..... To be truly successful, (employees) have to feel empowered to act. And they will feel empowered to act if they know what that vision is, if what they are doing is in alignment with that.
“I’m not a micromanager, but I am engaged.’’
Question: If a legislator were to call you and say ‘You need to approve this permit because we really need these jobs’ or whatever the reason, how do you respond to that?
Heigel: “I would tell the legislator I will inquire with the team that is working on that permit to ensure the process has been fair and transparent for the permit applicant. But ultimately, the recommendation of the staff is going to be based on the laws that exist. We are going to respect that process. I would be happy to provide that legislator with any information to address any concerns he may have about the process. But I’m not going to interfere with the work of my staff, provided it is done in accordance with the law.’’
Question: Would that be the same response you would give to the DHEC board or the governor?
Question: Do you intend to stay at DHEC longer than Catherine Templeton?
“How long was she here? Three years. I hope so. I serve at the will of the (DHEC) board. It’s a great job. We are dealing with issues that matter, that impact every single citizen of the state every day. For me and my personality, I like to be relevant and this is an incredibly impactful role and an impactful agency. So I’m very proud to be here. .... It’s not about money, it is about feeling fulfilled.’’