What a Dump!
BY BECCI ROBBINS
She apologized first, saying she was just repeating a conversation she'd had with a fisherman on the Catawba River, which she monitors for an environmental watchdog group.
Upon hearing that she would later that day be speaking at a public forum put on by the Department of Health and Environmental Control, he asked her to deliver a message: Tell DHEC to quit putting profits before the environment.
As he put it, "Doug Bryant is so far up the behind of big business all you can see is his shoes." Actually, he didn't use the word "behind."
Bryant is DHEC's commissioner. As head of the agency since 1993, he is no stranger to criticism. Neither is DHEC.
Last summer, the agency held a series of public forums across the state to solicit community feedback. Critics suspected it was just an empty exercise to boost DHEC's sagging image. A Columbia resident called the meeting he attended a charade.
But if it was a public relations stunt, it backfired. According to newspaper accounts, DHEC was pounded at each stop by people with a bone to pick with the agency. "DHEC Takes Flogging at Public Forum" reported the Charleston Post & Courier. And The State covered the Columbia meeting under the headline "Activists Give DHEC Critical Earful at Forum."
Mary Kelly, a longtime environmental activist with the state League of Women Voters, has probably spent more hours at DHEC board meetings and public hearings than anyone else, according to her peers.
At the forum in Columbia, Kelly told DHEC officials that an agency overhaul is in order. "Given the level of dissatisfaction that seems to exist and has been expressed in these forums, [the League] think[s] that major changes need to be made in the way this agency is structured and does business."
Public testimony at DHEC's meetings echoed complaints voiced at forums the state Sierra Club organized in 1997 to initiate "a dialogue on DHEC and the state of the environment," part of a $36,000 project.
Several hundred people attended the meetings. A sampling of their comments was included in a Sierra Club report released in December that offered recommendations for improving DHEC's performance.
A Georgetown resident said, "The corporate culture of DHEC is seriously flawed. I've seen deputy commissioners give talks at which they were openly apologetic about having to regulate industry."
From Pawley's Island: "We've got good laws in this state if the agency wants to enforce them. I've seen the agency pander to industry far too often."
From Mt. Pleasant: "I was a Young Republican with Lee Atwater... and was a page in the Senate. I love this state, but the current leadership over and over has demonstrated that when push comes to shove, the economy takes the driver's seat and the environment takes the back."
From Spartanburg: "What is it about us that says, 'Let's get school books for our children in return for nuclear waste?'"
From Charleston: "I have been dealing with DHEC for three years... and I've been getting the run around, the beat down, and everything except for 'I will stand up for you.' I thought DHEC was to protect me in this matter. They have done nothing but really add to the problem."
The forums organized by DHEC and Sierra Club suggest that among the general public there is a loss of faith in the state's environmental agency. "Both efforts validate a base level of concern for this issue," says Bob Guild, an environmental lawyer who has spent 25 years representing citizens and communities in South Carolina threatened by polluting industries.
"We heard recurring themes," says Dell Isham, executive director of the state Sierra Club. "Among them is the sense people have that they are excluded from the permitting process, that business gets preferential treatment, that there is collusion between DHEC and polluters."
At DHEC, there was suspicion that the public's comments were orchestrated. Earl Hunter, assistant to the commissioner and DHEC's chief lobbyist thought it "pretty coincidental" that the complaints were so similar. "It was obvious from the repetition of comments that people had communicated about what they were to say," he says.
Hunter doesn't think the public forums are a fair barometer of the agency's effectiveness, and that DHEC would rather rely on independent studies which measure "customer service." In its promotional brochures and financial reports, DHEC refers to its customers as the "regulated community."
DHEC's enforcement liaison, Bill Krecker, who has been with the agency for 20 years, attended the Columbia forum. He found it "sad" that people were airing old grievances. "We'll never be forgiven for some things," he says.
Lil Mood, DHEC's community liaison, says she was not surprised at the level of anger expressed at the meetings. "Frankly, I think both the intensity of feelings and the number of people who showed up is encouraging because it shows we have a citizenry who cares about preserving the environment that we have."
A coalition of legislators, lawyers, community organizers and environmental groups began meeting last spring to explore ways to improve environmental protection in South Carolina.
Their conclusion was this: Many of this state's environmental problems lie with DHEC. Simply put, the government agency that is charged with protecting the environment is not doing its job. What's more, DHEC cannot do its job because it is structurally flawed.
Their proposed solution: Restructure DHEC.
The coalition, called the Partnership for the Environment, crafted a bill which will be introduced this legislative session. A draft of the bill was included in recommendations the transition team working on environmental issues sent to Gov. Jim Hodges in December.
Among the bill's provisions:
Neal thinks the legislation is an idea whose time has come. If it weren't, the opposition wouldn't already be working against it.
"It is clear that industry sees the restructuring effort as a threat to its control of DHEC. I use that word deliberately -- not in the sense that they control day-to-day operations of the agency -- but they do control the outcome," Neal says.
One way industry operatives exert control is through generous campaign giving. The McNair Law Firm, for example, includes among its well-heeled clients ChemNuclear and Laidlaw Environmental Services (now operating as Safety Kleen). ChemNuclear buries most of the country's low-level radioactive waste. Safety Kleen operates one of the country's largest hazardous waste dumps.
The McNair Firm has two lobbyists working for Safety Kleen and three working for ChemNuclear. The two companies spent nearly $900,000 each on lobbying and direct contributions to political candidates in the past four years.
Neal knows that environmentalists are overwhelmingly out-spent by business interests in the political arena. Even so, he thinks the bill stands a good chance of passing.
But in the end, Neal says, he is less concerned with winning than with following his conscience. "Truth is the truth, and it deserves to be heard."
The Partnership for the Environment is banking on a populist movement fueled by the anger of ordinary citizens to push legislation through the General Assembly.
"If we leave it to the legislature, nothing will happen," Guild predicts.
He thinks a grassroots campaign for the bill is important whether it passes or not because it would "sensitize" DHEC and raise public awareness about how the agency operates.
"Here the focus is on an issue as clear as the nose on your face," he says. "The only people wanting to preserve the status quo are business interests."
The bill hasn't been introduced yet and already DHEC has drafted talking points which its staff is using to lobby legislators and the business community. The agency's arguments
against restructuring are that splitting the agency would reduce efficiency and would jeopardize its user-friendly permitting process.
Commissioner Bryant, who declined to be interviewed, has met with legislators to discuss the proposed bill. Privately they say he seemed open to all of its provisions except for splitting DHEC.
Isham takes that as a good sign, especially since he thinks that splitting the agency is the least important part of the bill. "Changing the structure doesn't mean it will necessarily change the outcome."
He is more concerned with the bill's other provisions. "A lot of it is common sense," Isham says. "It is what every citizen has a right to expect. To argue against this bill is like arguing for incompetence."
Splitting the agency into two departments -- one focused solely on public health and one dedicated entirely to protecting the environment -- on its face seems a practical proposal. With more than 6,000 employees, DHEC shoulders a myriad of responsibilities. Included in its long list of duties is disease prevention, restaurant inspections, radiological monitoring, coastal management and industry permitting.
Krecker admits that DHEC's Environmental Quality Control (EQC) department -- which regulates air, land and water programs -- is overworked and under-funded. He estimates that about 50 staff members in his department are responsible for tracking and regulating between 22,000 and 25,000 permits. "There is an element of having to prioritize the things looked at," he says.
Nearly everyone agrees that DHEC is under-funded. Some say that DHEC is also unfocused. They contend that the agency's dual responsibilities lend it an institutional schizophrenia, with its environmental programs competing with medical services for funding and staff time. Last year DHEC spent 73 percent of its $426 million budget on public health. It spent 12 percent on the environment.
South Carolina is one of only three states to combine its environmental and health departments.
S.C. Coastal Conservation League Director Dana Beach thinks it may be time to reconsider DHEC's configuration. In an editorial that ran in The State in January, he argued in favor of splitting the agency.
Beach called unfounded fears that such a split would create additional bureaucracy and eliminate "one-stop permitting" for industry. He argued that splitting DHEC would not change the way environmental permits are handled.
In fact, maintaining the current system is one of the provisions of the proposed bill.
Isham thinks that the hue and cry over DHEC's permitting process is being used as a diversionary tactic. "I am not opposed to one-stop permitting," Isham says. "I am against automatic permitting."
As might be expected, DHEC officials oppose the restructuring proposal. "As a department we would not be in favor of splitting the agency," Hunter says. "We think [health and the environment] are intricately linked. They must go hand in hand."
Krecker says that splitting DHEC would make it harder for the health and environmental components of the agency to communicate and would result in needless duplication of services. "It seems to be a step backward," he says.
Conflict of interest?
DHEC operates under a legislative mandate that charges it with protecting the environment while also maximizing employment and industrial development.
"How can any agency be responsible for protecting public health and the environment and at the same time be promoting economic development?" Kelly asks. "No man or agency can serve two masters."
Mood defends the mandate by saying, "It's hard for people to be healthy if they don't have the resources to provide for their needs. A viable economy is important to public health."
If rewording DHEC's mission statement could be called largely cosmetic, restructuring DHEC's board could be called heart surgery. It is one of the main provisions of the bill.
DHEC is governed by a seven-member board that is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. Unlike its neighbors in the region, South Carolina has no guidelines to ensure that the board includes members with environmental or scientific backgrounds. In fact, there are no requirements that members meet any standards at all.
Kelly thinks the DHEC board is ill-equipped to handle the breadth of its responsibilities. "This relatively small board has too much on its plate," she says.
DHEC's community liaison argues that the board members cannot possibly be experts in all of the areas under the agency's purview, and that they make their decisions based on the recommendations of professionals and data obtained from scientific studies.
"The board is a microcosm of the people we serve," Mood says. "They come to us as citizens rather than experts."
Krecker argues that requiring a merit selection process for board members does not protect it from politics. "If one is intent on stacking the deck, it's going to happen one way or the other."
Historically, the board has been comprised almost entirely of businessmen and developers. The board Gov. David Beasley left to his successor included:
Gov. Hodges recently appointed Brad Wyche to replace Burriss as DHEC chairman. Wyche is a Greenville lawyer who holds a bachelor's degree in environmental studies from Princeton University, a master's in natural resources management from Yale and a law degree from the University of Virginia. His appointment marks the first time anyone with environmental credentials has served on the DHEC board.
Wyche says he is spending his first weeks on the job cramming to bring himself up to speed on the health side of the DHEC equation. "I'm getting a good handle on those programs," he says. "It's going to take some time, but I'm committed to doing it."
As for restructuring DHEC, Wyche says he is cautious about rushing into anything. "I have an open mind about [restructuring]," he says, "but right now I don't know enough to make an informed comment. I have consistently said on this issue, and have told the governor, that if we were to pursue that idea I think it would be good to get an independent firm to come in and study the agency from top to bottom."
Wyche says that a thorough investigation of DHEC is an expensive proposition, and he doesn't know where the money would come from to conduct such a study. Even less clear is where the impetus for a serious review of the agency would originate.
"Indications from the governor is that it's not high up on his list of priorities," Wyche says.
Airing dirty laundry
When the Partners began talking about the idea of restructuring DHEC, they expected their proposal to receive a chilly reception from the governor and most legislators. At the time, Beasley was in office and was expected to stay there.
But with the election of Gov. Hodges and the appointment of Wyche, the coalition sees a window of opportunity. While they don't expect any sudden or unforced moves on the part of either the new governor or the new chairman, they do expect a fair hearing.
The Partners will be watching them with interest in the coming months. Gov. Hodges will appoint three new members to the DHEC board by July 1. And Wyche will review several cases on appeal before the board that the coalition has been tracking.
One of them is likely to be the case of a nuclear laundry operating in the Edisto Court community in Columbia.
For 25 years the neighborhood paid little attention to Interstate Nuclear Services. When INS first moved in, the company was permitted "light industrial."
"At first, they said they were starting a laundry," says Isaac McClinton, who was active in the neighborhood group opposing INS before his wife became ill and required his full attention. "We thought it was just a regular laundry, but then we find out that they're washing radioactive laundry and what not."
McClinton thinks it is no accident that the laundry chose to set up shop where it did. "They put it in our neighborhood, I guess, because we have a lot of poor black people in the area. They slipped it in here and we didn't know about it."
McClinton has lived in the neighborhood for 50 years. His house sits a block from the laundry that washes contaminated clothing from the Savannah River Site. Radiation measured at a neighbor's property line was detected at rates seven times the recommended standard.
INS, whose parent company UniFirst operates 11 facilities in the United States, had its license suspended in New Mexico after a citizens' group challenged the company in court. The group supplied evidence that the facility for years had been dumping radioactive sludge into the city's sewers.
"It makes me feel kind of angry" McClinton says. "I'm afraid for the kids."
Although he has circulated petitions, and has sat through tedious neighborhood meetings and public hearings, he thinks it has been wasted effort. "I am frustrated," he says. "I don't think [INS] is going to move."
He may be right. On March 8, an administrative law judge upheld INS' operating permit. Jimmy Chandler, the lawyer who represented Sierra Club in the case, said the parties that filed suit will likely ask DHEC to review the ruling.
With minor variations, the scenario playing out in the Edisto Court community is being repeated across South Carolina. More often than not, the neighborhood is poor or black. More often than not, the people who live there are given no prior notice and no opportunity for public debate.
In the Helena community in Newberry County, locals are trying to stop a landfill from moving in. Tommy Glymph is among those who think it is a bad idea to put a hazardous waste dump in the neighborhood. There are houses nearby, he points out, and a church just across the street from the proposed site.
"They want to ram this thing down our throats whether we want it or not," he says.
Glymph is head of Involved Citizens of Helena, a group of locals that has been trying to block the company's permit. "We came together as a community to fight this thing," he says. "Initially they said they wanted to put in a recycling plant. Then they wanted to put in a 70-foot tower filled with asbestos and anything else. It got to the point I didn't believe nothing they were saying."
After a protracted battle, the citizens' group celebrated a victory in February when the company's permit was denied. But the neighborhood's euphoria was short-lived. Glymph learned recently that the company will appeal. To that he says, "So here we go again."
The experience has been an education and a disappointment, Glymph says. He has learned to trust his neighbors more and to trust government less.
"My problem with DHEC is that -- especially when we had to go to court to fight this thing -- we as taxpayers were paying their salaries and they were working against us," he says. "I thought they were supposed to be on our side. It doesn't work that way, I guess."
For more information on the Partnership for the Environment's campaign to restructure DHEC, call 803-808-3384 or visit the South Carolina Progressive Network's Web
site at: www.scpronet.com/scpronet/.