Plagued by staffing problems including the search for a new director, the board governing the state's largest regulatory agency met out of the public eye for an extraordinary nine hours Thursday.

The declared purpose for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control executive session was a personnel matter.

Attempts to contact Mark Elam, the board chairman, were not returned.

"The Board met in executive session to discuss a personnel matter including the continued process for the director search," DHEC spokeswoman Cristi Moore said.

State law allows public bodies to discuss matters such as personnel or contracts in private but any vote they take must be done in public. No vote was taken when the DHEC board returned from the session.

"A nine hour meeting in executive session is extremely unusual," said Bill Rogers, S.C. Press Association director. "That's a lot of personnel. I've never heard of one that long in (my) 30 years at the Press Association."

DHEC has been searching for a director for more than a year since former director Catherine Heigel resigned in July 2017 only two years into a four-year contract.

Six months later she joined Carolina Water Service, one of the state's largest for-profit water and wastewater utilities which had recently been fined for a series of incidents of illegally discharged sewage into rivers.

David Wilson, a 35-year veteran of the agency who was senior director of legislative affairs, took over as an interim director.

DHEC might be the state's most unwieldy agency — deciding permits for everything from hospital beds to industrial air emissions and waste disposal.

Its lengthy, complex permitting system is criticized even by environmental and health advocates who push for tighter regulations.

In the past few years, the agency has faced staffing shortages and public controversies over staff decisions, particularly with surface water and groundwater issues.

Shortly before Heigel's departure in 2017, DHEC shuffled its Water Bureau chief to an advisory role and agency leadership began restructuring the bureau, after the agency was stung by public opposition to how it has been handling water withdrawal permits.

The controversies included a still-pending permit for internet giant Google to withdraw groundwater from an aquifer to cool servers at its Goose Creek plant, as well as permits granted for withdrawals from the upper Edisto River for an industrial scale potato farm.   

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Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.