State Politics

Does McMaster care about environment? Not enough to vote for him, conservationists say

“Must be something melting somewhere” How McMaster, Warren answer climate change questions

Gov. Henry McMaster and John Warren vowed to protect South Carolina's tourism industry from offshore drilling but declined to directly answer questions about climate change during the debate June 20 ahead of the runoff election.
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Gov. Henry McMaster and John Warren vowed to protect South Carolina's tourism industry from offshore drilling but declined to directly answer questions about climate change during the debate June 20 ahead of the runoff election.

When he was attorney general, Henry McMaster sued to protect the Catawba River, issued a ruling to preserve salt marsh islands and blasted state regulators for poor oversight of a leaking nuclear waste dump.

As governor, McMaster has opposed federal plans to drill for oil off the S.C. coast and backed efforts to create a state park on a barrier island.

But the Columbia Republican isn’t getting much support from the state’s most visible environmental groups as he campaigns for a four-year term as governor.

Many environmentalists are backing McMaster’s opponent, state Rep. James Smith, saying the Columbia Democrat has had a nearly perfect environmental voting record during his two decades in the S.C. House.

The conservationists acknowledge McMaster’s record but say they can’t count on him like they can Smith.

“What really sets James Smith head and shoulders apart — and in front of McMaster — is that he’s been a consistent leader and voice on conservation issues for over 20 years at the State House,’’ said John Tynan, director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina. “His support for conservation is not a political thing. It is a deeply held value and something he is passionate about.’’

Both the Conservation Voters and the state Sierra Club have endorsed Smith. So have key conservation leaders. Upstate Forever founder Brad Wyche recently contributed $2,000 to Smith’s campaign, according to the Democrat’s July campaign filing report. The Conservation Voters group recently has given $1,900

Among other things, Smith has fought to close a leaking nuclear waste dump to the nation, opposed attempts by the plastics industry to stop local plastic bag bans and fought to limit unchecked use of rivers by mega vegetable farms, supporters say.

In the past two years, Smith has led efforts to protect South Carolinians’ right to sue to stop pollution or development, Tynan and others say. That includes opposing three industry-supported bills making it harder to use the courts to challenge polluting chicken farms and industries, as well as development projects.

Smith’s efforts failed to kill the bills. McMaster signed them into law.

Columbia lawyer Bob Guild, a longtime Sierra Club member, said McMaster’s support for industry on that legislation demonstrates why the Republican has been a disappointment as governor on green issues.

Conservationists also can’t abide by McMaster’s alliance with President Donald Trump. McMaster , who once earned a Sierra Club endorsement when he ran for attorney general, was an early supporter of fellow Republican Trump, who has been hammered by conservationists for rolling back environmental regulations.

“The story in my view is wholly encapsulated by Henry pandering to the Trump right wing of his party,’’ Guild said. “It is uncharacteristic of him. It reflects poorly on him. It is a really radical departure.’’

‘He is the utilities’ candidate

McMaster staffers say the legislation he signed this past year was needed to stop lengthy legal disputes over environmental issues. They say the governor supports reasonable environmental protections, which is evident through his decades-long support of protecting rivers, groundwater and lakes from excessive withdrawals and pollution.

“The governor realizes there has to be a balance between protecting our wonderful natural assets and economic prosperity,’’ said Trey Walker, his chief of staff.

But Smith says the choice is clear for conservation-minded voters.

“He isn’t going to do anything,’’ Smith said of McMaster. “The big difference between Henry and myself on every issue, including the environment and conservation, is leadership. Henry is going to do what he’s always done, which is look out for Henry.’’

For instance, Smith said McMaster caved to pressure from Duke Energy and other utilities last spring and helped scuttle a solar energy bill that would have helped the fledgling solar industry expand in South Carolina.

After the bill failed, a Duke political action committee gave McMaster’s campaign a $3,500 contribution, according to a July state Ethics Commission report.

Last year, The State reported another utility, SCANA, bundled at least $115,000 in contributions from the Cayce-based company, its political actions committees and employees a month before it abandoned a troubled nuclear project in Fairfield County.

“He is the utilities’ candidate,’’ Smith said. “He is their choice because he’s going to defend the status quo.’’

McMaster’s office hotly denies he tried to stop the solar bill in the House, calling the charge a lie and saying Smith has no evidence to back his claims. Instead, McMaster supporters say the governor is a friend of solar energy.

Emails from McMaster’s office show the governor has trumpeted at least 18 new large-scale solar farms in South Carolina since mid-2017.

McMaster also recently won a clean-energy award from a Republican-leaning solar group after he opposed federal tariffs that could raise the price of imported solar panels. At a meeting to honor him, McMaster said he is committed to using multiple types of energy, not just traditional power sources, according to a story in the Carolina News and Reporter, a University of South Carolina student publication.

“Sources of energy, we can’t rely on just one. It can’t be just this one or that one,” the newspaper quoted McMaster as saying. “The solar energy, wind, all of these alternative sources are very important.”

Walker, the governor’s chief of staff, said McMaster is a solid supporter of environmental protection and renewable energy. Just because he sometimes backs business doesn’t mean the governor is a foe of conservation, Walker said.

“Gov. McMaster is proud of the things that he has been able to accomplish with the help of the others as it relates to protecting our environment,’’ Walker told The State. “It’s ... had a very positive effect on our state.’

Both ‘care very much’

McMaster’s office said the governor has been involved in high-profile environmental issues recently, including the cleanup of a Lowcountry tire-recycling center that he said posed “a serious environmental and public health risk.’’ He also directed the state-owned Santee Cooper utility to ramp up its efforts to prevent a coal-ash pond’s dam from collapsing and sending toxins into the Waccamaw River, west of Myrtle Beach.

Letters released by the governor’s office show McMaster committed the S.C. National Guard and the S.C. Emergency Management Division to help Santee Cooper keep the dam from failing as river levels rose after Hurricane Florence.

“Santee Cooper should take all appropriate measures to effectively mitigate the risks associated with the .... ash ponds,’’ McMaster said in a Sept. 17 letter to Santee Cooper Chief Executive Jim Brogdon. “Any scenario in which coal ash, sediment or contaminated water is released from the .... ash ponds is simply unacceptable.’’

Ultimately, the dam held and ash did not spill into the river.

McMaster, like Smith, also supported making the state Conservation Bank a state agency and acquiring St. Phillips Island in Beaufort County from billionaire Ted Turner. The state bought the 5,000-acre island for about $5 million late last year. St. Phillips, located below Hunting Island State Park, would be available for tours via ferry from Hunting Island, according to preliminary plans.

McMaster’s supporters also point to his actions as S.C. attorney general, from 2003 to 2011.

In 2003, McMaster ruled salt marsh islands are state property, saving potentially thousands of islands from development in South Carolina’s Lowcountry.

In 2007, he filed suit against North Carolina over that state’s plan to withdraw large quantities of water from the Catawba River, a move that could have hurt water flows downstream in South Carolina. The two states later reached a settlement. That same year, McMaster also ripped the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for failing to fully disclose the extent of nuclear waste leaks at an atomic landfill in Barnwell County. After The State newspaper reported on previously unknown pollution at the dump, McMaster said DHEC had failed to follow the state’s open records law in keeping information hidden about the landfill.

State Rep. Peter McCoy, a moderate Republican who worked closely with Smith on the solar energy bill last spring, said McMaster cares about protecting the state’s environment and would do well as governor. Both Smith and McMaster would provide sound leadership on environmental issues as governor.

Both, for instance, oppose offshore oil-drilling, a major concern along the coast, said McCoy, a Charleston County resident who is voting for McMaster.

“I don’t think you can sit there and draw a strong line between these two guys,’’ McCoy said. “You’ve got candidates who care very much about our coastline, care very much about the waterways and the land in our state.’’

In some cases, McMaster and Smith have taken the same position on issues.

This year, for instance, McMaster vetoed a bill that failed to give SCANA ratepayers a full refund of the money that they have paid for the bungled V.C. Summer nuclear project. McMaster favored a full refund. Smith voted against the bill, also favoring a full refund.

Furman University political scientist Danielle Vinson said while Smith and McMaster have big differences on some issues, the environment does not appear to be nearly as polarizing.

McMaster “does have a fairly moderate position’’ on the environment, Vinson said. “He’s not always going to be in favor of business every single time. He does have some environmental record to run on. Smith is going to be a little more mainstream Democrat on these issues.”