State agency approves plans to audit DHEC procedures

COLUMBIA -- A state watchdog agency will scrutinize how well the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control notifies the public and handles fines and cleanups in cases of corporate pollution.

The Legislative Audit Council, whose staff investigates state agencies' programs and makes recommendations, voted unanimously Thursday to do the audit.

"We just want to make sure that, one, DHEC is meeting the requirements that they've been charged with, and (two) are those requirements where we need to be," said Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, after the meeting.

Cleary is both a member of the Audit Council board and one of six state legislators who wrote the five-member council earlier this year, requesting the audit.

The request grew out of a controversy that began last year over DHEC's alleged failure to adequately notify the Myrtle Beach city government and local citizens about a serious groundwater threat in south Myrtle Beach.

The pollution came from AVX, an electronic components manufacturer. For 14 years, cancer-causing pollution seeped into the ground at AVX. In 1995, AVX told DHEC of the pollution. DHEC fined the company $7,000 and required it to clean up the site.

However, the pollution later spread to surrounding homeowners' property. The homeowners have sued AVX, saying the company's pollution has made their land "worthless." AVX is contesting the suit.

DHEC knew about the pollution threat, but neither nearby residents nor Myrtle Beach officials did, Mayor John Rhodes said in a Thursday interview.

DHEC spokesman Thom Berry said Thursday the agency welcomes the audit and will work with the council.

In September, responding to criticism, DHEC posted a notice on its Web site saying it told local officials about AVX pollution.

Cleary said the audit might find that state law requires DHEC only to work with a polluting company and not to notify the public. "If there isn't a notification requirement, I definitely think there should be."

The audit also will look at other states' practices concerning cleanup, fines and notifying the public of pollution threats.