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Gov. Nikki Haley alters DHEC board

Gov. Nikki Haley has replaced all but one member of the state's environmental protection board with a group of business people and doctors whose appointments could signal a more conservative, industry-oriented shift in agency policy.

Haley's choices for the Department of Health and Environmental Control board reflect the governor's philosophy about over-regulation of businesses, governor's office spokesman Rob Godfrey said Monday afternoon.

Haley's choices are subject to Senate confirmation. None are scientists or environmental activists.

"South Carolina is a business-friendly state that can be too regulatory,'' Godfrey said. "And Governor Haley's DHEC appointees are business people who understand there is a need to strike a balance between protecting natural resources and overburdening businesses with red tape.''

Board chairman Bo Aughtry would be replaced by Allen Amsler, chief executive at McCrory Construction Co., one of Columbia's oldest contracting firms, records show. Amsler, a Lexington resident, contributed $1,000 to Haley's campaign in December 2009, records show.

Attempts to reach Amsler were unsuccessful Monday. A former Florida resident, Amsler was named CEO at McCrory five years ago.

Other new members are Rock Hill dentist Ann B. Kirol; Mount Pleasant businessman and unsuccessful congressional candidate Mark Lutz; cardiologist John Hutto Sr. of Orangeburg; retired corporate executive Clarence Batts of Pacolet; and Robert Kenyon Wells, a Lexington businessman and major contributor to Haley's campaign. Wells, his family or his business have given Haley more than $20,000 in campaign contributions since late 2009, campaign finance records show. Attempts to reach Wells were unsuccessful Monday.

The governor's decision to pick an almost entirely new board at once reflects recent Haley decisions with other agencies. At DHEC, the decision to change out most of the board at one time is unprecedented. Steve Kisner is the only holdover board member. Other members' terms have expired because former Gov. Mark Sanford let the terms lapse. But they could have been reappointed.

Unlike many agencies, DHEC is not directly under the governor's control as a Cabinet department. While picking all the board members, the governor does not have direct authority over board decisions. By adding six new members to the seven-member board, Haley may be effectively asserting more control over the department, outgoing chairman Aughtry said.

But Aughtry said matters DHEC deals with are so complicated that new board members will have a hard time getting up to speed quickly. That's why, by law, the four-year board terms are staggered.

"That's a big learning curve,'' Aughtry said. "A carte blanche replacement of that board is a huge mistake. I don't know how much more strongly to say it.''

The role of the part-time DHEC board is to hire the department's full-time executive director, set department policy and hear legal cases over environmental and health permits.

One of South Carolina's largest agencies, DHEC is charged with protecting public health and the environment. The department provides a wide range of services, including licensing hospitals and nursing homes, monitoring for air pollution, issuing water quality permits, and regulating tattoo parlors.

Critics say the agency often grants permits when lawmakers intervene on behalf of constituents. Some say making the department a Cabinet agency would help resolve that. Others say splitting DHEC into two departments, one for health and one for the environment, would also help.

Lewis Gossett, chief executive at the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance, said the governor is ultimately accountable and should have her own people in place on state boards and commissions.

"Governors need to put their stamp on things," he said.

DHEC has plenty on its plate for the new board. Some of the biggest issues include dredging Savannah Harbor and digging a mega gold mine in Lancaster County, both of which could destroy large numbers of wetland and affect rare habitats. The department also faces money problems; its state budget has been cut 65 percent since 2008.

Batts, a former Manufacturers Alliance board member, is a retired BASF executive with experience in environmental issues and regulation, Gossett said. Gossett said he also knew Amsler's reputation, which he said is outstanding.

"Certainly, you never want to sacrifice" health or the environment, Gossett said of DHEC. "But you have to understand you've got to encourage business development and find a way to get both done."

Environmentalists knew little of the new board members when told of the choices Monday, but they urged Haley's new picks to keep conservation in mind. "A great board member is one who can say this agency has an important role to play in the lives of South Carolinians," conservationist Dana Beach said.