Sputtering air monitors, leaking underground storage tanks, acid-draining mines and poorly regulated dams are among the problems that state environmental officials say they must address after years of financial neglect.
Many basic environmental programs people depend on to protect the air they breathe and the water they swim in need an infusion of cash, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Since last fall, agency director Catherine Heigel has been urging state budget writers to provide the resources she believes her staff needs to perform its duties. This past week, she told a House Ways and Means subcommittee her agency can’t provide many basic services without more money.
“The first responsibility lies with me, to make sure you even know what has not been done,” said Heigel, who became DHEC director last summer.
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DHEC, one of the state’s largest agencies, asked the Legislature for an extra $35 million in the next fiscal year to bring many environmental and health programs back to a basic level of service. The department’s overall state budget is $106 million, down sharply from the levels of nearly a decade ago.
Some lawmakers say DHEC’s budget request is a whopper that could be difficult to approve in a year with many other statewide needs, ranging from improving roads to addressing unexpected expenses from last fall’s devastating floods.
But Rep. Murrell Smith, who chairs the Ways and Means subcommittee, said past budget cuts have hurt the state agency – and DHEC needs more revenue.
“It’s what happens when we cut agencies and reduce inspectors that are in charge of our public health,” Smith, R-Sumter, said last week. “We’ve got difficult choices. I guess it would be nice if we had known about this years ahead of time.”
Part of today’s financial challenge dates to the Great Recession that began late in 2008. At the time, former DHEC director Earl Hunter and his staff struggled with dwindling state revenues. At one point in the past decade, state lawmakers allocated as little as $83 million to DHEC. Some programs, such as dam safety, sustained deep reductions, former dam officials have said.
Critics, including state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, also blame DHEC for later refusing to fund programs in the name of government efficiency, when the department’s actions were really for political reasons. One of the main efforts by previous director Catherine Templeton was making the agency more efficient.
Templeton said Friday her efficiency effort saved the agency money, but didn’t hurt programs critical to the environment or public health. Instead, she didn’t seek big budget increases because they weren’t needed at the time, Templeton said.
Heigel, a former Duke Energy executive, was named DHEC chief after Templeton quit in 2015. While Heigel is drawing good marks from many for the work she has done at DHEC so far, not everyone is sure DHEC needs the $35 million.
S.C. Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, said state agencies have a tendency to seek big budget increases in years when state revenues are high, such as they are now.
“The ‘sooey call’ goes out, and everybody comes running to the trough,” Bright said.
Gov. Nikki Haley doesn’t think DHEC needs $35 million in extra money next year, but she did include nearly $18 million in new funding for the agency in her executive budget recently, records show.
Her office said that as with any budget, the governor must make decisions based on priorities. However, Haley recommended funding the agency’s top priorities, including improvement in the dam safety program, the governor’s office said.
One of the chief increases in spending sought by DHEC is for water quality monitoring.
The $945,000 DHEC asked for would help the agency begin testing many creeks and rivers monthly for pollution, as the agency once did before budget cuts ate away at the program. The increase would allow DHEC to hire 16 additional staffers to bolster its existing staff of 23. Haley has proposed $201,250, which the agency says would allow DHEC to hire three additional staff members.
Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler and Charleston Waterkeeper Andrew Wunderley said DHEC needs every penny it can get for the program. Their organizations are testing water in some areas because DHEC’s program is so threadbare, they said.
“We are essentially doing the state’s job,” Wunderley said. “The state, in a perfect world, would not have a need for us. But the problem is that sampling is so underfunded and undersupported by the Legislature and the governor’s office that there is a huge need for groups like us to step in and fill that gap.’’
This year, DHEC’s overall water quality monitoring budget is $1.4 million. A decade ago, the budget was $2.5 million.
Wunderley said sites his group tests at Shem Creek in Mt. Pleasant indicate water quality is less safe for swimming than DHEC’s limited testing indicates.
Monitoring the air for pollution is another program DHEC has said needs a financial boost. The agency asked for $464,000 to help fix or replace aging monitoring equipment. That equipment is increasingly prone to errors that can provide inaccurate air pollution readings, Heigel said. Haley did not propose money for air quality monitoring, according to a budget sheet provided by DHEC to the House Ways and Means Committee.
Overall, the agency needs to replace 98 monitors, samplers and other equipment in the next seven years. In 2006, the overall air monitoring budget was $2.3 million. Today, the budget for air monitoring is $1.95 million. Inaccurate air data can affect agency decisions on whether to issue air pollution alerts or whether to permit new and expanding industries, agency officials said.
Other financial challenges DHEC outlined include:
▪ Abandoned gold mines. The agency requested $450,000 to help stabilize contaminated gold mines that threaten to pollute the surrounding environment with acid and metals. Two mines are undergoing federally funded Superfund cleanups. But the state also has an ongoing financial obligation to pay some of the costs. Haley’s budget plan included $350,000 for the gold mine cleanup work.
▪ Dam safety and agricultural programs. The agency is seeking $661,500-$595,000, of which would be for seven extra staffers to inspect and oversee South Carolina’s 2,400 regulated dams. The program now has fewer than seven full-time workers and has, for years, been classified by dam safety experts as one of the most poorly funded programs in the country. Last October’s devastating flood exposed problems with the program when dozens of dams failed across the state. Haley’s budget also included $661,500, records show.
▪ Laboratories. The agency is seeking about $1.5 million to beef up laboratories that test samples the agency collects for pollution. It said department labs “have lacked necessary investments for over a decade and (are) now unable to reliably, securely and efficiently provide the required technology/laboratory services.” Haley included $1.1 million for labs in her budget.
▪ Underground storage tanks. The agency requested $291,000 to remove underground storage tanks. Gasoline and oil that leak from the tanks are among the primary sources of groundwater pollution in South Carolina. In the past, DHEC has made funding to help cleanup tank leaks a low priority. Haley’s budget also included the $291,000.
In addition to DHEC’s budget plan for the fiscal year starting July 1, the agency also supports a request by administrators of a closed toxic waste dump on Lake Marion for another $5 million to help improve the site so that it won’t leak pollution. State taxpayers already spend about $4 million annually to manage the site.
DHEC’s state budget request for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is $142.4 million, including the $35 million increase. The agency noted that if the full amount is approved, DHEC’s “base state budget would still be approximately $27 million less than in fiscal year 2008.”
The request also includes money for health programs, including $500,000 for infectious disease epidemiology, $1.75 million for tuberculosis control and $1.8 million for nurses salaries.
The agency also wants $11.2 million for a data center.