Effort to dissolve DHEC headed to SC governor. Here’s what’s in the final plan

Legislation dissolving the state Department of Health and Environmental Control is headed to Gov. Henry McMaster’s desk.

The House on Thursday unanimously passed a bill previously approved by the Senate that dissolves the agency and creates separate departments for health and environment. Unlike DHEC, whose governing board members are approved by the legislature, the two new agencies would fall under the governor’s control.

McMaster told reporters Friday he favors splitting up DHEC, but he has yet to see the final version of the bill.

DHEC is “too big. It’s 3,500 employees covering everything from licensing restaurants to fish to pollution,” McMaster said of the agency formed in the 1970s. “It needs to be an environmental agency and a health agency. I think it would work better, separated.”

The department has come under scrutiny for being bureaucratic, unwieldy and slow to act, The State reported previously. In 2011, reporting by the newspaper revealed that the department knew about low quality and lead-tainted drinking water in a poor Columbia-area community for 20 years before resolving the issue. Recently, in the early months of the pandemic, DHEC came under fire for not publicizing information about outbreak hot spots.

The new environmental agency would be named the Department of Environmental Services, which would have divisions to monitor air quality, water, land and waste management, water usage, regional and laboratory services, and coastal management, according to the plan.

A newly structured health agency would be called the Department of Public Health. But the bill doesn’t parse details about how the agency would be structured. Last year, a proposal to split DHEC stalled in the House because of concerns over how the public health department would be organized. This year, the Senate agreed to ask an expert in the Department of Administration to provide recommendations on how to structure the agency.

“Good, effective delivery of public health services isn’t a Republican issue, it’s not a Democratic issue, everybody wants to deliver public health services to South Carolinians in the most efficient way possible at the lowest cost,” said State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who steered the bill in the Senate.

Under the bill, the state Department of Agriculture would take over food safety. The Department of Veterans Affairs would pick up responsibilities for veterans homes, which provide treatment for South Carolina veterans who require long term nursing care.

The bill also preserves “automatic stay,” which temporarily stops work on construction when a government-issued environmental permit is being challenged.

If signed by McMaster, the legislation wouldn’t be implemented until July 1, 2024, meaning DHEC would not split until that date. Meanwhile, the Department of Administration is expected to conduct its analysis.

Davis said the legislature can make the “large, structural changes” it wants to see happen. But legislators wanted to bring in experts with the Department of Administration who could make recommendations on how to organize the health department.

Earlier this week, the House Ways and Means Committee voted unanimously to replace the Senate bill with a plan that called for the Department of Administration to study and recommend how both new agencies would be structured. The change was led by state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg.

But Cobb-Hunter agreed the bill’s final version was a good compromise, although she still has some concerns about the connection between health and the environment.

“Advocates raised the concern with me that by separating them, they felt like the connections between public health and the environment and the role the environment plays out in public health might be lost,” she said. “That’s one that I will certainly be trying to keep a watch on.”

On Tuesday, Cobb-Hunter said she was concerned about the Senate’s plan to move the state Department of Natural Resources water division to a new environmental agency.

Cobb-Hunter said the House agreed that water services should be under one agency, but questioned whether that agency should be DNR or the new environmental agency. In the bill, water services will move under the Department of Environmental Services, however the Department of Administration will study the move to ensure it’s a good fit.

Other legislators and advocates have spoken out about how quickly the process has moved to split DHEC, worrying it was moving too fast. It was a similar sentiment from last year.

“This bill has been worked on for two years now,” Davis said. “There was a lot of work done on the front end, starting last year, and then on the implementation (via the Department of Administration studies) and a 15-month period.”

Joe Bustos, state government and politics reporter at The State, contributed to this report.