Records blocked from DHEC website

S.C. agency says it is working to ensure website does not suffer security breach

sfretwell@thestate.comDecember 12, 2012 

— People wanting to know if neighbors plan to discharge sewage into rivers, build chicken farms or fill wetlands for development are having difficulty finding the information on the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s website.

DHEC temporarily has blocked access to many public notices while the department works to ensure it does not suffer a security breach.

Some public notice information has not been available on the website for at least a month. Agency spokesman Mark Plowden said DHEC hopes to restore the public notices to its sometime this week. Until then, anyone wanting public notices of permit plans can call (803) 898-3432, Plowden said.

“We are working on it,” Plowden said, noting that DHEC wants to restore the information “in a way that does not present a potential vulnerability to our computer system.”

The agency’s work follows a massive computer breach in September at the S.C. Department of Revenue. The breach exposed millions of citizens’ personal information to hackers. The revenue department and state leaders have been criticized heavily for not better protecting the data.

Plowden said his agency planned work on its website before the Revenue Department’s breach, but the issue at the tax department underscores the need to make sure DHEC’s data is secure.

DHEC, the state’s chief environmental and health agency, keeps track of thousands of medical records and sensitive nuclear security information the agency would not want in the hands of hackers.

While a wealth of information remains available on DHEC’s website, public notices are unavailable for many types of proposed environmental permits. Among those are notices of plans to discharge treated waste into rivers, develop property that could affect water quality and spread poultry waste on fields. All told, DHEC issues about 12,000 public notices in its air, water and land division in a year’s time.

Computer technicians at DHEC are trying to make sure that hackers can’t follow the links in reverse and get into the agency’s system, Plowden said.

DHEC’s effort to avoid a security breach isn’t setting well with everyone because of the time public notices have been unavailable on the website.

Dave Cole, a Chester area resident who has battled sludge disposal in his community, said DHEC needs to resolve the security problems and get the notices back up.

“I don’t know what is on the (website) that is so sensitive that the public should not see it,” Cole said, noting that DHEC’s “is your front page of environmental conditions. When they take that down, they put everybody in the dark.’’

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