RIVERS THAT AREN’T being monitored often enough for us to know whether the fish are safe to eat. Air-monitoring equipment that’s so broken-down that officials don’t know whether it’s safe to issue permits for new industry. Underground storage tanks and abandoned gold mines that aren’t being cleaned up to stop gasoline and acid and metals from leaching into the groundwater. And the giant hazardous waste dump on the shore of Lake Marion that we can’t even monitor properly, much less shore up to prevent water contamination of unimaginable proportions.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the state Department of Health and Environmental Control — the agency charged with making sure we have clean water to drink and clean air to breathe and that the people who cook our meals and provide our medical care don’t infect us — says it doesn’t have the money to do its job. We slashed its budget from $169 million in 1998 to $107 million today. That’s a 37 percent reduction. A 37 percent reduction that doesn’t even factor in the inflation and growing population that make it cost more to do the job the agency was doing eight years ago. Yet we didn’t reduce what we expected the agency to do.
We saw rather dramatically the result of such cuts in October, when the floods washed out dams that hadn’t been inspected as they should have been or repaired as they ought to have been, because DHEC didn’t have the inspection staff or the enforcement staff to make sure our public-safety laws were obeyed.
If DHEC is spending money wastefully — and any bureaucracy is going to, whether it’s in the public sector or the private sector — then it absolutely is appropriate to try to get that under control. And to the extent that this is what former DHEC Director Catherine Templeton did as she oversaw the defunding of the agency (the budget dropped as low as $83 million at one point), we applaud her work.
But as The State’s Sammy Fretwell reports, Ms. Templeton’s successor, Catherine Heigel, has told the Legislature she needs an additional $35 million just to cover the basics. That still would be $27 million less than the agency received in 1998, when there were fewer people and businesses in South Carolina and everything (except maybe gasoline) cost less.
We’ve seen no reason to believe that Ms. Heigel, a former Duke Energy executive who was hand-picked by Gov. Nikki Haley to run the agency, is a spendthrift, or a shill for the bureaucracy. It’s more reasonable to think she’s a professional who put her reputation on the line and then discovered that the agency she inherited simply does not have the resources to do the job state law requires it to do. As she told lawmakers last month, it is her job to at least make them aware of the problems — which a lot of people believe Ms. Templeton declined to do for political reasons.
Even Gov. Haley has requested an $18 million budget increase, which suggests there’s some serious underfunding, given her preference for cutting taxes to paying for government services.
We can debate whether the state should be in the business of inspecting the strength of dams and the purity of river water and the safety of restaurants and whether it should limit how much pollution manufacturers can spew into the air and take on the task of cleaning up hazardous sites that have been abandoned by bankrupt owners. But there should be no debate on this: Once the state decides to do those things, it is obliged to do them. Well.
DHEC isn’t the only agency that sustained massive cuts to its funding without corresponding cuts to its responsibilities, and it’s not the only one that is still struggling. The Department of Social Services leaps to mind, and there are others, and our Legislature needs to handle them the same way it needs to handle DHEC:
If the state is not going to guarantee that the water is safe to drink, it needs to let people know that they drink it at their own risk. If the state is not going to hold companies to the pollution standards set in state law and regulations, it needs to just stop spending our money on a program that promises to do that but doesn’t.
We believe the state ought to be working to protect the public health, by regulating how much our environment can be despoiled and making sure people who are paid to handle our food and our medicines are doing so safely, and we expect that most South Carolinians feel the same way. That means we have to pay for the equipment and the people who do that important work.