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Suit says DHEC halted hazardous waste probe

South Carolina’s environmental protection agency backed away from an investigation of hazardous waste dumping after receiving complaints from at least one state elected official about the probe, a federal lawsuit says.

In a suit filed Wednesday, former investigator Christopher D. Phillips said he was punished for trying to do his job at for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Phillips, of Elgin, is seeking $500,000 in actual damages and undisclosed punitive damages because he was transferred from his job as a criminal investigator to another post.

Phillips said he had “compelling evidence’’ to make an arrest, but was dropped from the investigation after presenting his findings to top DHEC officials.

The suit relates to a probe of illegal asbestos disposal in Swansea, according to Phillips’ lawyer, Lewis Cromer. But the subject of the probe is not spelled out in the lawsuit.

Phillips said in his lawsuit that the targets of the illegal dumping investigation were friends with at least one state elected official. It says the targets of the probe attempted to get support from state legislators and others to pressure DHEC. The suit does not name the elected officials it says complained.

But the suit does name as defendants DHEC environment division chief Bob King and assistant environment chief Jim Joy, as well as chief criminal investigator Michael Tempel.

DHEC spokesman Thom Berry said the agency would not comment on the lawsuit. He said he did not know the status of the investigation in Swansea.

Phillips said Joy and Tempel told him “one or more” state elected officials demanded “he be taken off the case and punished, if not fired’’ after he reported the results of his investigation to top staff in the fall of 2007.

The suit, filed in Columbia, comes amid growing criticism of DHEC and its dealings with the Legislature.

Critics have said the agency is too willing to please lawmakers wanting to know about environmental permits and other matters. The 35-year-old state agency, the fifth largest in South Carolina, is run by a seven-member board appointed by the governor. But the governor does not have direct authority over the board.

DHEC began investigating about two years ago upon learning that an old cabin near the town of Swansea was to be torn down. The cabin contained asbestos, a highly toxic material that must be handled carefully and disposed of properly. The town of Swansea planned to hire a cleanup contractor. But the material disappeared and it isn’t clear what happened to the asbestos.

Cromer said DHEC officials punished Phillips for trying to report and prosecute environmental violations.

“Their efforts have not only caused Mr. Phillips’ career to be sidetracked, but have continued to place the public in jeopardy and shield apparent wrongdoers, as well,’’ Cromer said.

Phillips has extensive law enforcement experience and is a former state trooper, Cromer said.

When DHEC officials transferred Phillips from his duties as a criminal investigator to another position, which took him out of the state’s police retirement system, the suit says. The demotion hurts his retirement benefits and amounts to a breach of contract, the suit says. It also said DHEC had violated Phillips’ first-amendment rights.

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.