Debacle at DHEC erodes public trust

Rarely does such abject failure come to light.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has let 503 pollution-control permits expire.

Most of the permits are for water and air pollution discharges.

That means the state's rivers, groundwater and air quality are potentially threatened, while the agency that oversees the safeguards is asleep at the wheel or deliberately not doing its job.

"What are they doing over there?" asked one incredulous legislator, Rep. James Smith of Richland County.

About 14 percent of the state's active permits have expired.

Many of them expired three to five years ago, according to a study by The (Columbia) State newspaper. Others date to the early 2000s. One expired in 1994.

As a result, pollutants could be flowing into the water and air at a higher level than would be allowed under new permits.

DHEC is famous for coddling polluters, and bending over backward to accommodate the wishes of business and industry. But even with that backdrop, this is ridiculous.

The agency is to act as the eyes and ears of the general public. When permits that affect air and water quality are sought, they often are thick with scientific data and computer modeling that the average citizen cannot comprehend. Citizens -- especially those who own property, live or work near industries that affect the air and water quality -- depend on DHEC permits to protect them, and on vigilant follow-up to see that the permits are being adhered to.

To find that the permits are not even being renewed erodes public trust, and creates doubt about whether DHEC is protecting the people at all.

The South Carolina Environmental Law Center sued the agency last week over its failure to issue a new permit for a Santee Cooper coal-fired power plant. A five-year permit for the plant expired in 2006. A law center attorney said a new permit with stricter controls on mercury, copper and arsenic was proposed but never issued.

In another case, a citizen objects to DHEC's inaction on a permit for the disposal of human sludge near his home. He said the foot-dragging has denied the public its voice, and its right to ask for stricter limits on the disposal.

Budget cuts within the agency are cited as one reason for the stack of expired permits. Other Southeastern states also have backlogs, it is said.

More important is how Catherine Templeton, the new director at DHEC, reacted.

Templeton said she was surprised to learn the agency had such a backlog of expired permits. She said getting caught up will be a top priority.

"This is not just a concern, it's a priority" to resolve, Templeton said Tuesday. "This is absolutely unacceptable."

Later in the week, she said: "It could be bad for the environment. My hope is I'm blustering for no reason and there's not been one harmful molecule of anything because of this."

Templeton came in the door being criticized, after her appointment by Gov. Nikki Haley She was knocked for a lack of experience in the field, for working out of Charleston rather than in the large agency's Columbia headquarters, and for creating a new layer of highly-paid executives while laying off longtime workers needed for their experience and expertise, including nine coastal division employees.

But Templeton's reaction to the permit debacle earned praise last week from an authoritative source, the Conservation Voters of South Carolina. That is a good sign.

"That's moving the ball forward," said Ann Timberlake, who heads the Conservation Voters organization and has spent most of her adult life working in the trenches to protect South Carolina's natural resources. "We've got to do that."

In renewing the old permits, care for the environment is more important than a rush to clear the decks. The job must be done quickly, but it must be done right. Natural resources, and public trust, are at stake.