DHEC breakup bill resurfaces as critics push for better environmental protection


The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, criticized for failing to react quickly enough to environmental problems, is again on the chopping block as critics push for improvements in how South Carolina protects the landscape and oversees public health.

Efforts to breakup DHEC failed late in the 2022 legislative session, but Sens. 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 last legislative session. It calls for splitting DHEC into separate health and environmental agencies in what some senators say is an attempt to improve the myriad of services the agency is now responsible for.

DHEC, with about 3,500 full-time workers, is one of the state’s largest agencies and one of the few government departments in the country to combine both public health and environmental services under one roof. Founded in the 1970s, the agency’s duties include issuing pollution permits, monitoring the air and water for contamination, regulating tattoo parlors, examining proposed hospital expansions, responding to disease outbreaks, and regulating oceanfront development.

Sens. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, and Democrats Thomas McElveen of Sumter and John Scott of Columbia said it’s worth trying again to break up the agency. Separate health and environmental departments would allow for more focus by each, they said.

“I’ve always favored splitting DHEC,’’ McElveen said. “It’s a behemoth 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 scrutinized and details will have to be examined. But Scott said he thinks a split will help give DHEC more focus to resolve problems, such as water contamination that plagues some small communities.

Campsen called the agency “unwieldy’’’ with the combination of health and environment. “It’s hard to serve two masters,’’ he said.

DHEC supporters say the agency has done good work through the years. DHEC, for instance, received praise for its COVID 19 response after initial problems in 2020. But boosters say the agency is often caught in the crossfire between competing interests. It makes sense, boosters of the agency say, to have health and environment in the same department because many issues are related.

Agency spokesman Ron Aiken declined to comment on the bill but said “whatever the Legislature passes, we will comply with.’’

According to the bill, a new Department of Environmental Services would assume most of the duties now handled by DHEC’s environmental division.

The voluminous, 52-page bill, S. 399, creates a free-standing environmental agency that would for the most part handle regulatory issues, such as whether to grant permits to industry and real estate interests. Those would include permits authorizing industries to release pollution to the air, water and land, as well as permits for developers and property owners to build along the coast.

DHEC also would pick up some services from the Department of Natural Resources, including the aquatic nuisance species program. The DNR’s flood mitigation program would be transferred to the state Office of Resilience. A department food safety program would be transferred to the Department of Agriculture.

Campsen said he’s leery of moving functions away from the Department of Natural Resources in any DHEC breakup bill. He would not favor breaking up DHEC if the change meant shifting responsibility for certain types of scientific research, now done by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, into a new environmental department. He noted that having separation between the DNR and the new agency would provide checks and balances.

The proposed Department of Behavioral and Public Health would pick up DHEC’s health duties, while also absorbing the S.C. Department of Mental Health and the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services. The health changes sunk the bill last year after advocates of the mental health department complained mightily.

Both of the new health and environmental agencies would be cabinet departments under Gov. Henry McMaster. DHEC is now overseen by a citizen board.

Environmental groups haven’t taken a position on whether to support 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 breakup bill is less important than “getting an agency that works best for South Carolina,’’ said Peter Raabe, southeast regional director for the environmental group American Rivers.

“We need to dig into where DHEC is,’’ he said in an interview with The State. “It’s one of the largest agencies in South Carolina. That says something there. From our perspective, we are really just focused on ‘can the agency fulfill its position as currently constructed?’‘’

During a briefing by conservationists for senators Wednesday, Raabe said the agency needs more money for additional staff and to keep existing staff from leaving for better paying jobs.

South Carolina, with miles of coastline and scenic foothills, has increasingly attracted vacationers and permanent residents who have, at times, put pressure on the environment. The state was one of the fastest growing in population last year.

DHEC through the years has been blasted for failing to ensure some communities get clean drinking water; not holding the line against coastal development even as sea levels rise; and granting pollution permits, despite concerns about the environmental impacts.

Late last year, for instance, 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 creeks in the marshy Lowcountry.

Whether the bill gets anywhere may hinge on satisfying questions about the pricetag -- at one point the breakup was estimated to cost $18 million -- and concerns from those concerned about changes to health services.

An intense lobby from advocates of the Department of Mental Health killed the legislation last year, and mental health advocate Jerry Pate says this year’s version of the bill is no better than the one he opposed in 2022.

Opponents of last year’s bill said the Department of Mental Health already is working smoothly, and folding it into DHEC could hurt services the public is used to. Mental health services have been sound because DMH has had little turnover in key personnel, he said. Pate said he doesn’t oppose breaking up DHEC, but that should not include the mental health agency.

“This is not going to be helpful in providing mental health care across the state,’’ said Pate, who serves on a local Mental Health Department board in Columbia. “If the Legislature adopts this bill, every time we get a new governor, there’s going to be a new person in charge of the new health division.’’

Scott disagreed that an agency split would hurt mental health services. He said a shakeup is in order.