DHEC applauds itself
BY REP. RALPH CANTY
Many South Carolinians were genuinely dismayed at DHEC's April 2 "State of the Environment" press conference, at which the state agency congratulated itself on the good job it is doing protecting the environment. This is pure public relations nonsense.
Given that South Carolina is arguably the most environmentally damaged state in America, let's look at three unsettling aspects of the agency responsible for protecting our environment.
First, in its entire history, DHEC has never made an earnest and comprehensive attempt to clean up the environment. At present, there are thousands of uncontrolled toxic waste sites across the state so many, in fact, that three-quarters of the state's black population lives within one and a quarter miles of such a site.
While DHEC has made no more than the most perfunctory, circumscribed efforts to eliminate these sites, it does not even have a count of how many sites there are or where they are located.
Secondly, DHEC actually goes out of its way to encourage major polluters to move to our state. South Carolina has more toxic, hazardous and radioactive waste coming in than does any other state, in part because DHEC can be counted on to give them a free ride.
DHEC has encouraged environmental nightmares like ChemNuclear and the Laidlaw toxic waste dump to expand facilities that already are damaging our environment. DHEC actually brags about how its job isn't to levy fines but to "encourage compliance." This results in repeated offenses as polluting industries laugh all the way to the bank.
In the past two years, DHEC supported licensing a company under criminal indictment in their home state. While the highway department will check your driving record if you move to South Carolina, DHEC will not look into the environmental records of industries relocating here.
The third major problem is that DHEC's policies are so tied to the well-being of corporate polluters that there is no requirement for waste industries to put cash into trust funds that can be used to mitigate future environmental problems.
While DHEC boasts about the great job it does protecting our environment, it sends a different message to industry. In a recent Department of Commerce publication designed to recruit big businesses, a story about DHEC emphasized its "customer service," "streamlined permitting" and its "emphasis on compliance over enforcement."
Furthermore, DHEC operates largely in secret, rigorously excluding citizens from enforcement proceedings and seldom holding public hearings before issuing environmental permits.
Reform of this agency, whose practices and procedures seem at odds with its mission, is needed from top to bottom. I and other legislators concerned that DHEC has lost touch with its important responsibility recommend five elemental reforms to the General Assembly:
1. Require DHEC to hold public hearings before issuing any environmental permits.
2. Require all DHEC enforcement hearings to be open to the public.
3. Establish state-funded technical assistance grants to allow citizens to participate in a meaningful way in DHEC hearings.
4. Pass a clear "bad boy statute" which will mandate DHEC to keep proven polluters out of South Carolina.
5. Require existing and future polluting industries to post a cash bond sufficient to cover the cost of cleaning up any environmental damage they may cause.
DHEC does not do its job. Without pressure, it is clear that it shows no signs of doing so. This is a chilling realization which no amount of public relations fantasy will change.
Rep. Ralph Canty is a three-term Democrat serving Sumter County.