Friday, September 7, 2007

DHEC fails the public trust

From The State, Sept 7, 2007
By ANN TIMBERLAKE - Guest Columnist

The State’s recent story about the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s regulatory negligence at the Barnwell nuclear waste dump raises a troublesome question: Why don’t the seven DHEC board members, appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate, demand that staff fulfill the mission of “promoting and protecting the health of the public and the environment”?
Recently, DHEC hosted a public hearing on an air permit application submitted by coal transport giant Kinder Morgan. Kinder Morgan wants to quadruple the size of its North Charleston facility, allowing it to bring in 10 million tons of foreign coal every year, bound for dirty coal-burning plants in South Carolina and beyond.
If built, it will be one of the largest terminals of its kind on the East Coast, and result in a mountain of coal on the banks of the Cooper River 80 feet high and weighing 600,000 tons.
At the hearing, DHEC faced a buzzsaw from local residents concerned about their neighborhoods, air quality and noise. In the face of all this public concern, a DHEC staffer made a startling admission: Public input would not play a role in DHEC’s internal decision-making on the permit.
In other words, keep on talking, but you’re likely to get an expanded Kinder Morgan facility whether you like it or not. And other coal-related permits are on the way.
At a recent DHEC hearing in Florence County, Santee Cooper engineers stood shoulder to shoulder with DHEC officials and explained why Santee Cooper should be allowed to build a new pulverized coal plant on the Pee Dee River.
Every other utility in the state is moving away from coal and toward conservation. But state-owned Santee Cooper wants cheap coal energy. Officials seem blind to climate concerns, residential impacts from coal emissions or mercury in our rivers and lakes, to name but a few concerns raised by residents at these hearings.
DHEC actually appears relieved by the narrow focus of its self-imposed regulatory oversight, which officials claim prevents them from considering alternative energy sources, the actual need to build the plant, carbon emissions or anything else controversial about these projects.
The fact is, DHEC avoids taking on polluting industries. Regulators appear to believe their charge as public servants is to enable industrial operations, whatever their ilk. On the coal side, there is no evidence that DHEC has ever denied an air permit for any coal facility in South Carolina, preferring instead to serve as a referee between public and industrial interests, though invariably siding with big business.
At Barnwell, DHEC was supposed to be proactively monitoring water quality, but dropped the ball by hiding behind an old Nuclear Regulatory Commission exposure standard that is weaker than EPA’s drinking water standard. Furthermore, DHEC continues to insist that tritium pollution is the result of disposal methods prior to 1983, rather than requiring a change in the current open-trench disposal technique.
The newly released “plume maps” depict alarming well water readings at Barnwell. Even worse is the fact that DHEC suppressed the release of these maps under the guise of protecting Chem-Nuclear’s “proprietary” interests. If residential drinking water is at risk in the Savannah River basin, the ultimate cost to the public could be high, in terms of human exposure to radioactivity and financial costs to clean up the mess.
As we go forward, we need a state environmental and health agency whose first mission is to protect clean air and clean water. Merely “shaping” industrial permitting requests, in order to enable them to occur, is not the same as creating high standards of public health and safety, and then holding regulated industries to those standards.
The DHEC Board has the duty to set policy, and it needs to insist on full transparency. For too long at DHEC the tail has been wagging the dog. This board needs to insist on accountability. If DHEC is not going to stand up for the health and safety of South Carolina citizens, maybe it’s time we got rid of it and put something into place that really works to protect South Carolinians.
Ms. Timberlake is the executive director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina.

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