I have been criticized over the years for referring to our fair state as a banana republic. I make no apologies, and news in the past week only confirms this harsh judgment. South Carolina is run by corporate interests, for corporate interests. What happens in the Statehouse is largely window dressing on this little Third World country we call home.
Last week, The State newspaper in Columbia ran a series of stories on the laxness and cronyism in the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. This is the executive agency charged with keeping our land, air, and water clean and safe. That this agency has failed in its mission is a gross understatement.
According to The State, DHEC has been in bed with corporate malefactors for years, relaxing regulations, looking the other way as rules were stretched and broken.
Among The State's findings:
A former DHEC investigator said he was punished by superiors for investigating an illegal asbestos dump in Swansea. He has sued DHEC, claiming that state legislators used their influence to get DHEC to back off the case. The suit names three ranking DHEC officials as defendants.
DHEC knew in 1985 that a private utility was polluting a Richland County neighborhood's drinking water with lead, yet it did not notify the residents and did not get the lead removed until 2005. Residents have tested positive for lead in their blood.
DHEC failed to post signs along Lowcountry rivers, warning people that fish from those waters had high levels of mercury, which may have come from coal-burning plants in the area. A number of people have tested positive for mercury in their blood, and some have become ill. DHEC has known about high mercury levels since the 1990s.
DHEC withheld documents relating to a leaking nuclear waste landfill, saying that to release the documents to plaintiffs would violate the trade secrets of Chem-Nuclear, the company that operates the landfill. This was apparently one example of how DHEC has reportedly failed to comply with requests for information by attorneys, citizens, media, and legislators.
Under DHEC's stewardship, South Carolina has become the garbage mecca of the East Coast. The three largest private waste haulers in the nation operate mega-dumps here. DHEC has largely ignored residents' and legislators' complaints about the flood of garbage. "We are the pay toilet of the nation," a state senator told The State.
Some of DHEC's most skilled and highly paid staffers leave the agency to go to work for the very companies they have been trained to regulate. Some refer to the agency as the "University of DHEC."
DHEC, responsible for enforcing the state's Beachfront Management Act, has relaxed much of its regulation, giving developers the green light to build ever larger structures ever closer to the surf in popular resorts. In the absence of DHEC regulation, the Hilton Head Island town council is considering creating regulations to protect its beachfront from development.
Make no mistake — behavior such as this would prompt legislative and even criminal investigations in many states and sovereign countries. But in S.C., it is simply business as usual. I wager that no one will lose his job or be inconvenienced in any way by The State's revelations.
And bear in mind that this travesty of environmental protection is happening on Gov. Mark Sanford's watch. In fact, it's happening under his nose. DHEC is an executive agency; its director serves at his pleasure. This regulatory sham appears to be a perfect example of Sanford's libertarian philosophy at work. Now there is increasing talk of Sanford running for president in 2012. Well, why not? If you liked George W. Bush, you'll love Mark Sanford.
Before The State's series on DHEC had run its course last week, we were treated to more news of government malfeasance and public endangerment. A coalition of health organizations released a report on Tuesday saying that S.C. ranked dead last among the states in the amount of money it spends to prevent and reduce tobacco consumption. S.C. is budgeted to spend $1 million on prevention programs in fiscal 2009; the Centers for Disease Control recommended that we spend $62.2 million. The tobacco industry will spend more than $280 million marketing its products in S.C. in the fiscal year.
With such official attitudes toward public health and environmental protection, it is not surprising to learn that this is one of the most dangerous places in the nation to live. S.C. has the third shortest life expectancy in the country. But not to worry! The U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranks us year after year as one of the best places in America to do business.