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DHEC Reform: a Deep Dive

We thought we’d take a break from our regularly scheduled programming this week and give you a deep dive into S.2, the DHEC reform bill introduced last Year by Senator Peeler.

I don’t think it will be any surprise to hear that DHEC isn’t winning any popularity contests at the Statehouse. The agency is deeply disliked by elected officials no matter what side of the aisle they sit on. It has been criticized for things like its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Board’s refusal to follow staff’s recommendations and ban experimental seawalls. This isn’t a new sentiment either, bills aimed at eviscerating DHEC have been introduced Year after Year, but it took a national crisis to move this up in the General Assembly’s list of priorities.

What’s up with DHEC anyway? DHEC is huge: it is one of the state’s largest agencies with over 3,000 full-time employees and is one of the few agencies nationally that handles the protection of both public health and the environment. It has its fingers in a lot of what our state’s citizens and businesses do on a daily basis and that leads to bureaucracy and red tape – unpopular things in our red state. Need a septic tank? Got a loved one in a nursing home? Fancy a tattoo? Living through a pandemic? Better call DHEC!

Compounding the problem is that DHEC has grown significantly over the decades. Created in 1970, the agency now has almost two-hundred regulations on the books. But as the federal government and the General Assembly have piled on more and more responsibility, there has been less and less funding handed over to accomplish those responsibilities. Because of these dynamics, DHEC is spread thin and underfunded, and it has become an agency whose troubles are mounting. However, when its mission is critically  important (i.e. protecting public health and the environment), we need them operating at top capacity.

Acronym City: Last Year, a task force was convened to study the agency’s future (CVSC sat on the Environmental Protection Subcommittee). The Task Force to Strengthen the Health and Promote the Environment of South Carolina (SHaPE SC) came out with its final recommendations in November of 2021. The SHaPE report pointed out several issues at DHEC, though they were not able to fully anticipate the cost – to our pocketbooks or wellbeing – of splitting up DHEC as initially contemplated in S.2.

The agency is critically underfunded. As noted by the SHaPE SC report, the low resourcing of the agency means salaries aren’t competitive and they can’t recruit and retain professional staff. High turnover among staff and leadership has made advancing the agency’s mission more difficult.

Does all this mean that DHEC should be split up? Not necessarily. We at CVSC want to see a DHEC that functions well and that is accountable in its efforts to protect our environment and our people. That means it needs funding and the support of our General Assembly – the latter of which may not be possible at this stage. That is why your committed CVSC Government Relations team will be working hard to make sure S.2 is crafted as well as it can be if it moves forward.

With that background to anchor us, let’s take a deeper dive into what S.2 (as amended) envisions for the future of DHEC, but let me start with a caveat: I’m not going to discuss the public health side of this bill. Without a doubt, that is an extremely important piece to this legislation, but CVSC’s focus is the environmental side and the areas where public health and the environment intersect rather than purely on public health policy.

What does it do? As amended, S.2 is a big bill with far-reaching consequences. Most importantly the current version of the bill being debated:

  • Splits DHEC up into two separate agencies: the Department of Public and Behavioral Health and the Department of Environmental Services
  • The Department of Environmental Services will largely function as a permitting agency directly accountable to the Governor as a cabinet agency
  • It reassigns certain responsibilities, moving the Water Resources Division at DNR to the new Department of Environmental Services

Environmental permitting is an extremely important piece of the overall puzzle to protect the air, land, and water we love in South Carolina. Permitting is what allows DHEC to prevent issues before they ever happen while also having some accountability over private companies as they conduct their business. Therefore, CVSC believes that these permitting decisions should be based on science and supported by robust opportunities for public engagement. To that end, CVSC and the SC Conservation Coalition have proposed a number of amendments to the bill (See also The Nature Conservancy’s comment letter). In short, we have flagged the following critical items that should be addressed if the bill moves forward (and it appears it will):

  • Preserving the current automatic stay of permit decisions prior to and following any appeal to the Administrative Law Court;
  • Establishing a formal internal agency review process prior to issuing draft agency decisions in place of the current Board review;
  • Addressing the loss of jurisdiction for “classification of waters” and regulation over impoundments; and
  • Enhancing public engagement and participation in the permitting process to enhance citizen access and inclusion in the environmental permitting process.

We’re also concerned about the proposed move of DNR’s Water Resources Division to the new permitting agency and are trying to learn more about how this would be done well. Not only is the Division integrated into DNR functionality, but moving the division now could stall the ongoing State Water Planning process.

To be frank, however, there has been very little opportunity for public engagement with lawmakers on the bill and our suggested amendments. In fact, there was no testimony taken at Thursday’s hearing where they passed the amended version of S.2 onto the full committee, which will be taken up this Thursday (with our PFAS bill, S.219).

With the changes in Senate leadership and Senator Peeler’s increased influence as Chairman of Senate Finance, the fact that he has introduced a DHEC reform bill for at least the last decade is an important note. Adding to this fact that Senators from both parties have issues with the agency, and all signs begin pointing to “it is going to be a bumpy ride” for them.

Sure, the second Year of a two Year session is quickly passing by. But it remains to be seen if this means that the Senate and House will have time for such a massive reform bill or if they will barrel ahead without a full vetting of what the current reform proposals mean for the agency and for South Carolina.

That is where CVSC comes in. Our role (and yours) is to make sure that the Senate and House take the time to do a full accounting and thorough vetting of the reform proposal – ensuring that any reform makes the most sense for the taxpayers, public health, and the environment. From our concerns and amendments noted above, we know there are a number of big-picture environmental issues that need to be addressed and we will be working diligently to discuss those and other issues as they arise.

All that said, the discussion of DHEC reform is only just beginning in the 2022 legislative Year. The bill has a long road ahead of it, but it looks like it could be a doozy of a roller coaster ride.

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