The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) is one of three combined public health and environmental departments in the country. DHEC’s Office of Environmental Affairs emphasizes the importance of engaging with communities just beyond the fence line of facilities or sites it permits or oversees. The Community Engagement Team is made up of staff from all five program areas (Air Quality, Water, Land & Waste Management, Environmental Health Services, and the Office of Coastal Resource Management) who serve as representatives of communities in high-level agency staff meetings. They also routinely reach out to concerned citizens regarding environmental projects or issues in the state and frequently serve as facilitators for public meetings and public hearings. Within Environmental Affairs Administration is a Community Engagement Coordinator who leads weekly meetings with all community engagement positions, coordinates coverage of projects, and works to continually improve processes related to community engagement.
Example of Successful Engagement in Action:
High levels of lead and arsenic were found in industrial soil during testing for a real estate transaction. Soil testing found elevated lead and arsenic levels in a neighborhood next to the site as well. The Community Engagement team, along with technical experts, went door to door in the neighborhood to explain what was happening and to get permission to sample yards. As it turned out, research found that there had been a fertilizer plant in the area that had been built around 1900 and torn down in the early 1930s. The plant was the source of the legacy contamination, and EPA conducted an emergency removal. DHEC offered biological monitoring for both lead and arsenic to citizens in the neighborhood. DHEC and EPA held several public meetings to explain the findings of the investigation as well as the cleanup. Biological monitoring results were negative in the community members that were tested, and the process helped relieve any fears of potential health impacts of the soil contaminants found.
A long list of projects have benefited and are writing permits or designing cleanups. While the perception used to be that community engagement delayed the process, staff now see and appreciate the many benefits of engaging citizens and hearing and addressing their concerns early in the process.
Results to Date:
The state is working to quantify the benefits of community engagement by evaluating its efforts in association with the number of permits issued, the number of appeals, and various other metrics. Stay tuned to SC DHEC Community Engagement for more exciting results moving forward.
Community Engagement Coordinator
South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control