SC’s Department of Health and Environmental Control, criticized for not responding quickly enough to environmental issues, is on the chopping block again as critics demand improvements in how South Carolina protects the landscape and oversees public health.
Efforts to dissolve DHEC failed at the end of the 2022 legislative session, but the senses. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, and Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, introduced a new bill last week.
The new bill is similar to the one that failed in the last legislative session. It calls for splitting DHEC into separate health and environment agencies in what some senators say is an attempt to improve the myriad of services the agency is now responsible for.
DHEC, with approximately 3,500 full-time workers, is one of the largest state agencies and one of the few government departments in the country to combine public health and environmental services under one roof. Founded in the 1970s, the agency’s functions include issuing pollution permits, monitoring air and water contamination, regulating tattoo parlors, reviewing hospital expansions proposed, outbreak response and regulation of waterfront development.
Senators Chip Campsen, R-Charleston and Democrats Thomas McElveen of Sumter and John Scott of Columbia said it was worth trying again to dismantle the agency. Separate health and environment departments would allow everyone to focus more, they said.
“I’ve always favored the DHEC division,” McElveen said. “It’s a giant agency – the public health function of DHEC and the environmental function of DHEC are two separate things.”
He and Scott said the bill will need to be reviewed and the details will need to be worked out. But Scott said he thinks a split would help give DHEC more focus on addressing issues, such as water contamination that plagues some small communities.
Campsen called the agency “heavy” with the combination of health and the environment. “It’s hard to serve two masters,” he says.
DHEC supporters say the agency has done a good job over the years. DHEC, for example, has received praise for its response to COVID 19 after initial problems in 2020. But recalls say the agency is often caught in the crossfire between competing interests. It makes sense, say the agency’s proponents, to have health and the environment in the same department because many issues are linked.
Agency spokesman Ron Aiken declined to comment on the bill, but said, “Whatever the legislature passes, we will comply.”
According to the bill, a new Department of Environmental Services would take over most of the functions currently handled by DHEC’s environmental division.
The bulky 52-page bill, S. 399, creates an autonomous environmental agency that would handle most regulatory issues, such as whether to license industry and real estate interests. These would include permits allowing industries to discharge pollution into the air, water and land, as well as permits for developers and landowners to build along the coast.
DHEC would also take over some services from the Department of Natural Resources, including the aquatic nuisance species program. The DNR flood mitigation program would be transferred to the State Office of Resilience. A departmental food safety program would be transferred to the Department of Agriculture.
Campsen said he was wary of moving functions away from the Department of Natural Resources in any DHEC-breaking bill. He would not favor disbanding DHEC if the change meant transferring responsibility for certain types of scientific research, now carried out by SC’s Department of Natural Resources, to a new environmental department. He noted that the separation between MNR and the new agency would provide checks and balances.
The proposed Department of Behavioral and Public Health would take over the health functions of DHEC, while also absorbing SC’s Department of Mental Health and the Department of Substance Abuse Services. Health changes sank the bill last year after mental health department advocates complained powerfully.
The two new health and environment agencies would be cabinet departments headed by Governor Henry McMaster. The DHEC is now supervised by a citizen council.
Environmental groups have not taken a position on whether to back the breakup, but they say the legislative effort gives them a chance to advocate for changes to protect the environment.
Whether a new agency or an improved DHEC emerges as a result of the severance bill is less important than “getting an agency that works best for South Carolina,” said Peter Raabe, regional director for the south. -is from the environmental group American Rivers.
“We have to dig to find out where the DHEC is,” he said in an interview with The State. “It’s one of the biggest agencies in South Carolina. That says something there. From our point of view, we only focus on “can the agency fulfill its position as it is currently built?”
During a briefing by environmental advocates for senators on Wednesday, Raabe said the agency needed more money for additional staff and to prevent existing staff from leaving for better-paying jobs.
South Carolina, with miles of coastline and scenic foothills, is attracting more and more vacationers and permanent residents who have sometimes put pressure on the environment. The state was one of the fastest growing in terms of population last year.
Over the years, DHEC has been criticized for failing to ensure some communities have access to clean water; not holding the line against coastal development even as sea levels rise; and granting pollution permits, despite concerns about environmental impacts.
Late last year, for example, environmentalists sued DHEC for failing to use a coastal management law to oversee the growth of communities that rely on septic tanks, which can pollute groundwater and streams. in the marshy Lowcountry.
Whether the bill goes anywhere may hinge on satisfying questions about the price — at one point the break was estimated at $18 million — and concerns from those worried about changes to health services.
Intense lobbying by advocates from the Department of Mental Health killed the legislation last year, and mental health advocate Jerry Pate said this year’s version of the bill was no better than the one it looked at. he had opposed in 2022.
Opponents of last year’s bill said the Department of Mental Health was already functioning well and its integration into the DHEC could harm the services the public are used to. Mental health services have been strong as DMH has had little turnover of key staff, he said. Pate said he doesn’t oppose breaking up DHEC, but that shouldn’t include the mental health agency.
“It’s not going to be helpful in providing mental health care across the state,” said Pate, who sits on the board of Colombia’s local mental health department. “If the Legislative Assembly passes this bill, every time we have a new governor, there will be a new person in charge of the new health care division.”
Scott disagreed that an agency split would hurt mental health services. He said an overhaul was needed.
This story was originally published January 25, 2023 3:57 p.m.