South Carolina official seeks to increase secrecy about environmental lawbreakers

·3 min read

A state health and environmental agency board member is questioning a department policy of releasing information about people and businesses charged with breaking laws that protect public health and the environment.

J.B. “Sonny’’ Kinney Jr. said he’s concerned that those who have paid fines and corrected environmental mistakes are included in a monthly board enforcement report. The report lists everyone who violated the law in previous months.

“If they’ve paid the fines and are now in compliance, should the staff be required to put this in here?’’ Kinney asked during the Department of Health and Environmental Control board’s monthly meeting. “Is there a reason why, as far as public records?’’

Kinney, a Kiawah Island resident and past president of the S.C. Health Care Association, went on to say “I don’t know that they need to report that to us. Does anybody got a problem with that?’’

The report he referred to, which is publicly available before every DHEC board meeting, summarizes each enforcement action the department has taken in recent months.

It provides a narrative explaining what violations people have committed and lists any fines DHEC has levied against them. The report also says whether the person, company or government charged with a violation has paid fines.

One monthly report released in February, for instance, for the first time publicly revealed that a large gold mine in Lancaster County had been fined $100,000 for a series of air pollution violations.

But the report also said the gold mine had paid the fine the previous month. If the gold mine violations had not been in the report, the public might not have learned about the problem. The Haile Gold Mine had pledged to obey environmental laws when it opened about four years ago and it now is seeking DHEC permission to expand.

Jay Bender, an open records attorney from Columbia, said the enforcement report lets the public know who broke the law and to weigh whether fines are adequate.

“How do you know the fines are imposed legitimately and fairly unless you see all of them?’’ Bender asked, adding that the public should have a right to know who has past environmental or health violations.

“Once you have served your sentence, you are still convicted,’’ said Bender, who has represented The State. “And the information that you were convicted and the penalty you received remains public.’’

He said Kinney’s idea is reflective of South Carolina’s culture of secrecy in government, which includes DHEC. The agency, one of the nation’s few combined health and environmental departmtents, is one of the state’s largest. It regulates everything from air pollution to hospital expansions.

Kinney was not available after the meeting for comment. But his concerns didn’t gain much support at the meeting Thursday.

Staff members said the information is part of the agency’s effort to be transparent with the public. Board members Chuck Joye and Rick Lee agreed.

“I think disclosure is healthy, myself,’’ Joye said, noting that this is “purely part of disclosure to not only first — us — but also to the public.’’