A bill introduced Wednesday would split up South Carolina’s environmental and health agency.
The plan by Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, folds the health functions of the Department of Health and Environmental Control into a new cabinet agency that also would include South Carolina’s mental health and drug abuse departments.
DHEC’s environmental division would become part of the S.C. Department of Agriculture, an agency now run by an elected commissioner.
DHEC now is one of the few agencies nationally that includes both health and environmental responsibilities in one department. Critics, including Peeler, say the agency is unwieldy and needs streamlining. The agency employs about 3,500, most in its health-related divisions.
“Does (my bill) grow government? No. Does it shrink government? No,” Peeler said on the Senate floor. “It makes government more manageable.”
Peeler, who runs a dairy operation, promised to offer a bill to abolish DHEC after a screening committee that he chaired grilled a candidate to run the agency for several hours last month.
The candidate, Eleanor Kitzman, withdrew from consideration. Peeler later said the job is too big for any one person.
Peeler’s bill would create the Department of Behavioral and Public Health – which includes DHEC’s health-related functions, and the departments of Mental Health, and Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services.
Lynn Bailey, a Columbia health-care economist who has clashed with DHEC, said the proposed new state department would be “twice the mess at four times the cost. A health agency would still need to employ enough people who know what they are doing.”
Putting the S.C. Department of Agriculture in charge of environmental protection also is a potential flashpoint.
Among other things, the Agriculture Department recruits corporate farms to South Carolina. Those farms and other agricultural businesses need DHEC approvals to operate.
DHEC’s duties include deciding on environmental permits for chicken and hog farms, which have a history of pollution leaks nationally. The state agency also has some oversight over crop farms.
“When you are recruiting giant farms, I don’t see how you could not be biased” toward farms, said Doug Busbee, a Wagener businessman who is pushing for tighter water withdrawal restrictions on big farms. “I don’t see any good coming out of this.’’
Ann Timberlake, director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, said breaking up DHEC has merit because the agency is cumbersome. But she said the “culture seems quite different’’ at the Agriculture Department.
“I’d be more prone to support an independent environmental-control type of agency,” she said.
Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers said Wednesday, “The laws and regulations that fall under DHEC are critical to the well-being of our state and its citizens.”
He added should legislators “decide to relocate some of those responsibilities to the Department of Agriculture, we will work diligently to administer them effectively and efficiently.”
Peeler said he chose to propose putting environmental oversight into the Agriculture Department because that agency already handles similar regulation, including oversight of the shrimp industry.
A possible alternative to oversee the environment, the Department of Natural Resources, handles wildlife, he said. “There’s not a perfect fit.”
Previous plans to split up DHEC either have met with resistance from business leaders or died from lack of attention as legislators focused on other priorities. However, Peeler is one of the most influential members of the Senate, which could help the bill’s chances this time despite initial criticism.
DHEC, one of the state’s largest departments, was created in 1973 from a merger of the state’s pollution control and health departments.
The new health department under Peeler’s bill would be a cabinet agency. Its director, chosen by the governor, could appoint 30 deputies to lead divisions, according to the bill.
The director of Alcohol, Drug and Other Drug Abuse Services, a cabinet agency that would be eliminated if the proposal passes, temporarily would run the new agency until the governor appoints a leader.
DHEC and Mental Health are not cabinet agencies, though the governor appoints all of their board members.
“Before opponents give (the bill) a hard ‘no,’ please give it a hard look,” Peeler said.
Staff writers Joey Holleman and Jamie Self contributed