South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) has more than five hundred expired environmental permits on its books, sources at the agency tell FITS.  As a result of this backlog numerous large environmental projects – including several controversial ones – are being allowed to proceed long after their authorization has expired.

Ready for the kicker?  This whole process is perfectly legal.

“The date on the permit is irrelevant,” SCDHEC spokesman Mark Plowden told FITS.

Wait … what?

According to Plowden, SCDHEC permits are enforceable until a new permit is issued or the old one is removed – and any entity whose permit has expired is still “legally operating under our jurisdiction and review.”  Lawmakers we spoke with – including those with environmental oversight – confirmed Plowden’s interpretation, although they couldn’t point to the specific statute authorizing this bizarre “holdover” status.

FITS uncovered this permitting controversy shortly after we were informed of a facility in the Upstate that was operating “illegally” (i.e. without a permit).  Frankly, we don’t have any real problem with this policy (the less government, the better in our book) … but then again we are kooky, out-of-the-“mainstream” libertarians.  Of course it does seem silly to us for an agency to issue permits for specific time periods if it is just going to ignore the deadlines.

In fact in a state as corrupt as South Carolina, such an arrangement is an invitation to all sorts of bad behavior …

Catherine Templeton

Who does have a major problem with the policy?  New SCDHEC director Catherine Templeton, who we’re told “hit the roof” when she was informed of the number of outstanding permits.  Templeton – who took over the agency back in March – has instructed her staff to begin addressing the backlog.  Aggressively.

“She was pissed,” one of our agency moles says. “It isn’t about ideology it’s about people not doing their jobs.”

Another agency source said that Templeton has expressed concern that the number of outstanding permits could give the impression that her agency isn’t committed to transparency – seeing as the renewal process for most of these permits involves public hearings.

Having attended a few of these hearings in the past, we can attest to the fact that they can quickly become downright testy.

“This bureaucracy has been afraid of criticism, afraid of being challenged,” one source said.  “And so instead of engaging that process they have clammed up and watched the paperwork pile up.”

How quickly can Templeton start erasing this back log?  We’re not sure, but it’s looking like the agency’s is going to be hosting numerous public hearings between now and the end of the year in an effort to get its permitting back on schedule.

Incidentally SCDHEC’s most egregious permitting gaffe occurred in November 2011 – four months before Templeton’s arrival at the agency.  That’s when the SCDHEC board – which technically governs the agency – reversed its prior rejection of a water quality permit for the State of Georgia’s Savannah Harbor Expansion Project.

Guess that error in judgment is as open-ended as it was colossal …

Known as the “Savannah River Sellout,” this decision – which was reportedly pushed by S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley in exchange for financial and political considerations from port interests in the Peach State – put the Port of Charleston at a severe competitive disadvantage and effectively killed off a privately funded Port of Jasper.