COLUMBIA -- South Carolina's top environmental policy maker says new federal pollution rules are becoming a "deterrent" to industrial growth in the Palmetto State.
Allen Amsler, who chairs the Department of Health and Environmental Control board of directors, relayed his concerns to Gov. Nikki Haley in a recent email that expresses frustration with the "continuous flow of new regulations" from Washington.
The Aug. 18 email, obtained last week by The (Columbia) State newspaper, provides the clearest indication to date that the governor's recently seated environmental protection board - headed by Amsler - is concerned about the effect that regulation designed to protect the environment is having on business in jobs-starved South Carolina.
That concerns agency critics, who fear DHEC staffers will work less diligently to enforce federal environmental protection regulations if agency board members do not endorse them.
Since Haley chose a new DHEC board last winter, Amsler and fellow board members have questioned the need for a number of state regulations, including those governing infectious waste, recycling and hospital expansions.
During last year's successful campaign, Haley said DHEC needs to be more business-friendly to help economic growth in a state with a high unemployment rate.
She has had some success in bringing industry to South Carolina, most notably Thursday's announcement of a 1,700-job tire manufacturer in Sumter County. But concerns remain about environmental regulations that could chill job growth.
In his email to the governor, Amsler took aim at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, saying DHEC "is helpless when it comes to closing the door on the continuous flow of new regulations that we are required to enforce. Air quality is leading the EPA overregulation at this point."
The email said "it is becoming a deterrent to any business looking to move to South Carolina - or for those that are already here, expanding them."
Amsler said in an interview he is committed to protecting air and water quality, but the federal government needs to provide flexibility to South Carolina.
DHEC, the state's chief environmental and health protection agency, is charged with carrying out many federal regulations. That requires the state agency to decide whether industries should receive permits to release pollutants into the air and water.
If a federal rule gets tougher, DHEC often must apply that to industries seeking permits. But critics say DHEC might be less than enthusiastic at enforcing tighter federal rules if the agency's board and management don't agree with the restrictions.
"My fear is that DHEC does the minimum job," said Bob Guild, a Columbia environmental lawyer who has tangled with the agency numerous times over permit decisions. "They could adopt federal regulations ... then just do a lackluster job of enforcing them."
Amsler's email to Haley did not itemize the EPA rules he had concerns about. But it suggested the regulation of sulfur dioxide is one of them.
The email to Haley referenced a news article in which a Pickens County official had said federal pollution regulations, including those on sulfur dioxide, could affect the Upstate county's ability to attract industry. Amsler's email said the official "is dead on with her comments."
DHEC records show one industry has told the governor's office it was having trouble obtaining approval to operate under the air pollution rules. Amsler sent an email to DHEC's environmental chief, Bob King, asking to "see what we can do to assist" the company.
That company, Showa Denko, is investing $250 million and hiring 100 people to expand its graphite plant in Dorchester County. Records show DHEC has put extra effort into processing the permit, but agency spokesman Adam Myrick said it is still under review.
The EPA tightened the health standard for sulfur dioxide last year, and earlier this year, finalized a rule that would control the drift of sulfur dioxide and other soot- and smog-forming pollutants across state lines.
Sulfur dioxide is a pollutant released mostly from coal-fired power plants and large industrial facilities. People exposed to sulfur dioxide can have difficulty breathing, particularly those with asthma.
Frank O'Donnell, director of the environmental group Clean Air Watch, said tighter federal air pollution regulations will protect public health. He questioned how industrial recruitment could suffer in South Carolina if the federal rules apply to every state.
Many air pollution regulations that have irked industries nationally are required by law, but some were delayed for years by the Bush administration, O'Donnell said. That includes tighter regulation of mercury and greenhouse gases from power plants, he said.
"Claims that they are some mad regulatory terrorists at the EPA are frankly false," O'Donnell said. "They are trying to do what they are supposed to do. They've got a lot on their plate because a lot of issues were unresolved."