Environmental Audit Bill is a crime in the making
BY REP. JOE NEAL
There is a bill pending in the state legislature that poses a grave danger to the entire state. This bill is so mean-spirited and wrong-minded that its serious consideration has caused me to wonder if I want to continue serving as a state legislator.
The only purpose of the Environmental Audit Bill is to allow polluters in South Carolina to get away with polluting, to allow them to do their polluting in secret, and without fear of penalty and public scrutiny.
Identical bills have been introduced into state legislatures across the country by anti-environmental, ultraconservative interests the kind of interests that believe it is acceptable business and moral practice to damage people's health and our common environment as long as a profit is being made.
To date, all of these bills have been defeated. Only South Carolina the most environmentally damaged state in the nation now appears to be seriously considering passing an Environmental Audit Bill, and, in the process, continuing our long, sad record of self-inflicted environmental harm.
The reason why Environmental Audit Bills have been defeated across the country is because they are frightening. Sensible citizens by the millions have found their self-serving contents very difficult to believe, and to stomach.
Consider that these bills actively shield polluters from prosecution for what otherwise would be considered environmental crimes.
Consider that in the future environmental infractions could be kept secret from the public, shielded from public disclosure and from fine or penalty because a company would be policing and "auditing" itself.
Consider that the bill actually tries to persuade the public that eliminating normally imposed fines for toxic discharges would be beneficial because it would supposedly encourage polluting companies to police themselves.
Consider that the bill also tries to tell the public that shielding companies from public disclosure of environmental crimes and infractions would mean polluting companies somehow would monitor themselves more thoroughly and effectively.
All of these considerations, added together, paint a picture of legislation which is legitimately frightening. It is legislation whose provisions of secrecy threaten the health of every person in South Carolina. It particularly threatens the health of our black population, which shoulders a disproportionate share of the pollution now in South Carolina.
South Carolina needs the exact opposite of what is in the Environmental Audit Bill. It needs light, truth and public scrutiny let into every part of the South Carolina environment, and into every industrial activity which is potentially damaging to our people or to our environment, and into every business practice which deals with toxic discharge, toxic waste and industrial spills.
These terribly dangerous activities put the health of all our citizens at risk, and no company or industrial practice should be exempt from scrutiny.
In this last month of our General Assembly a few rational legislators will introduce amendments which will:
1. Strengthen DHEC so that it will have the backbone to act in the public's behalf and not avoid its responsibilities to public health and environmental well-being, as it does now.
2. Create a "state cause of action" which will allow individual citizens to sue for state penalties whenever DHEC fails to act in the face of environmental infractions, or does not act with due diligence. This Audit Bill surrenders the people of South Carolina to polluters.
We must create a way whereby the citizens who actually have to live with pollution will be able to sue polluters on their own and the state's behalf.
3. Direct that all fines for environmental infractions whether collected by DHEC or by citizen action be placed into an Environmental Enforcement Fund to further empower individuals to sue, and to stop polluters by court action when DHEC fails to act.
It is significant that the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Attorney oppose the Environmental Audit Bill because they:
Oppose the South Carolina bill's "creation of new environmental and evidentiary privileges."
Charge that the bill's immunity provisions "do not require a violator to take any steps to prevent reoccurrence of a violation."
Charge that the bill will allow an environmental violator to "gain a competitive advantage over other businesses which invest in resources to meet environmental requirements."
States that language in the South Carolina bill is so "vague that in the future it could well become very difficult to determine if environmentally regulated businesses in the state are out of compliance with our environmental laws and regulations."
My constituents, my friends and my conscience have compelled me to remain in the legislature. Turning the air we breathe, the water we drink and the land we walk over to the corporations that benefit from our state's lax environmental regulations is a breech of trust I cannot commit.
Joe Neal is the state representative for District 70 in Richland County and is a board member of South Carolina Environmental Watch, a group that works to protect low-income and minority communities from polluting industries.
In the future, environmental infractions could be kept secret from the public and shielded from fine or penalty because a company would be policing and "auditing" itself.