DHEC chief speaks against overhaul

South Carolina's environmental and health chief spoke Wednesday against putting the governor in control of his agency, saying it would make the department more vulnerable to political pressure.

Earl Hunter, commissioner of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, told a Senate panel that DHEC doesn't need the overhaul being advocated by environmental groups and some lawmakers.

"If you put our agency or the director of that agency directly under the Cabinet, in my opinion I believe you're going to politically charge or emotionally charge decisions," Hunter said during a hearing held by the Senate Medical Affairs Committee

A bill before the Legislature would make DHEC a Cabinet department directly under the governor. The agency now is overseen by a seven-member board the governor chooses, but has little direct authority over. A major criticism of DHEC has been its perceived willingness to support business and industry at the expense of the environment, a charge the agency denies.

Critics say the agency's structure makes it too susceptible to pressure from the Legislature to approve permits or loosen fines against polluters in lawmakers' districts. Being under the governor could reduce that legislative pressure, critics say. Last year, The State newspaper chronicled a series of missteps at DHEC, ranging from the agency's approval of mega-landfills to allowing development to encroach on the beach - despite state laws discouraging that. The newspaper later found records documenting nearly two dozen instances in which legislators had contacted Hunter or his staff during a six-month period last year.

DHEC, South Carolina's sixth-largest agency with nearly 4,000 employees, oversees some 200 programs and touches the lives of most citizens. Its duties range from issuing pollution discharge permits and monitoring air and water for contamination to inspecting tattoo parlors and approving hospital expansions. Critics say the agency is unwieldy.

In making his first public comments to the Legislature against the plan, Hunter suggested that his agency is better able to withstand political pressure than its counterparts. Hunter said that in Kansas, a cabinet secretary who answers to the governor influenced a decision that stopped a coal-fired power plant. The DHEC board didn't have an order from the governor's office when it voted on a coal-fired power plant in the Pee Dee, he said after the meeting.

The DHEC board in February approved an air pollution permit for the Santee Cooper plant - despite growing evidence that coal plants are a major contributor to global warming. The Florence County plant, since shelved by Santee Cooper, would have allowed mercury to be released in a part of the state where mercury-polluted fish are already a problem in rivers. Hunter said after the meeting he was trying to show that the board decided the issue on its merits, not politics. The agency must base decisions on the law and can't go beyond that, he said.

Referring to a newspaper story from the early 1990s, Hunter also said Gov. Dick Riley's office told the agency not to issue permits for a Union Camp paper mill in Eastover.

"We went ahead and permitted it anyway," Hunter said. "I think the history shows that that corporate partner has been a good partner. They've done a really good job of managing their pollution and dealing with issues. But had we been under the Cabinet at that point in time, the secretary may have come out with a decision that ... decided, 'We're going to find a way to deny this permit.'"

Whether the bill has chance of passing next year is questionable. Gov. Mark Sanford, an advocate of putting his office in charge of DHEC, has never enjoyed much support from the Legislature and lost even more ground this year after it was revealed that he had an extramarital affair. He also has been under fire for travel related expenses. Next year is Sanford's last in office, and some have said changes at DHEC could take effect under the next governor.

Sens. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, and John Courson, R-Richland, said Wednesday that the DHEC board needs to be dissolved and the department fall under the governor's control. They have sponsored a bill to put DHEC under the governor.

The S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the Conservation Voters of South Carolina are among groups backing the change. Major business groups oppose making DHEC a part of the governor's cabinet.