The news that more than 500 companies in the state are polluting without current permits is distressing for obvious reasons. Citizens are left to wonder, and perhaps suffer from, what unhealthy things industries are dumping into waterways and emitting into the air.
Five hundred industries can make for a lot of pollution to worry about.
And the situation has been aggravated by other time- and money-consuming problems. For example, the Southern Environmental Law Center has filed suit against the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, the agency charged with issuing and renewing permits, because of a lapsed permit — a controversial one — held by Santee Cooper.
The suit charges that Santee Cooper has been allowed to avoid paying for enhancements to its controls over pollution from coal ash pits.
But the fact that the backlog was discovered, discussed publicly and made a priority for DHEC is an indication that Director Catherine Templeton is changing things at the agency. So are her efforts to eliminate inefficiency and waste.
Mrs. Templeton’s appointment in January was met with much skepticism. What did a labor lawyer know about health or environmental issues? People feared that she would be a puppet of Gov. Nikki Haley, who is very interested in bringing new jobs to South Carolina, but who has given little indication that protecting the environment is a priority. Both DHEC’s governing board and Gov. Haley were criticized for their support of Georgia’s Savannah River deepening proposal.
The judgment on Mrs. Templeton appears to have been premature. Consider, for example, the 500 expired permits. One reason for the backlog is a staff shortage due to severe budget cuts. But another reason is that staff members pushed controversial, complicated permits to the bottom of the pack. Mrs. Templeton says that is going to stop. She has directed her staff to make those difficult permits their first order of business.
Additionally, Mrs. Templeton has led efforts to clean up a polluted Columbia neighborhood and take on the state’s obesity problem. Oh, and she told us she has so far identified about $2.5 million in department spending that can be eliminated in the future. Even some of one-time detractors in the Legislature are applauding her.
Mrs. Templeton said during a recent visit to our newspaper that she sees her job as making the agency efficient and cost-effective so that it can enforce regulations to protect the state’s health and environment. Period.
The proof will be in the pudding. Dealing with 500 expired permits, plus keeping up with new permit requests, inspecting hospitals, issuing certificates of need for new medical facilities, overseeing public health clinics and more, on a diminished budget with limited staff, is a management challenge.
Failing to perform these important duties in a timely and efficient way puts the state at risk of seeing its environment impaired, people’s health compromised and sought-after businesses frustrated.
Five hundred polluting industries operating with expired permits is a wake-up call for DHEC — and for the Legislature.
The agency should be given the resources that is needed to do its job.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Templeton should continue to make every effort to fix the mess she’s inherited.