New DHEC director has Darlington roots
By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
Attorney and Darlington native Catherine Heigel has been chosen to helm the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), one of South Carolina’s largest and most crucial state agencies.
Heigel grew up in Darlington and lived here through middle school when her parents, mom Debby and retired Florence-Darlington Technical College business administration teacher Tom Edwards, moved the family to Ohio.
Heigel completed undergraduate studies at the University of South Carolina and earned her law degree from Ohio State University. She says she didn’t necessarily aspire to a career in law early on, but chose law school because it opens avenues to varied career options.
“I had not grown up always wanting to be a lawyer. It’s a good thing I liked it, because it would have been a really tough three years otherwise,” Heigel says of her time at Ohio State.
In the course of her studies, Heigel discovered her passion and adeptness for commercial law. She began her career at the SC Department of Consumer Affairs doing insurance and utility rate regulatory work, and this job afforded her the chance to fast-track her courtroom skill development.
“I had the opportunity to work with some very fine lawyers who allowed me get experience actually trying insurance rate cases. For someone in her first year out of law school to be appearing before an administrative law judge and actually getting that experience was pretty unique,” says Heigel.
From there Heigel moved to an in-house attorney position with Duke Energy, where she worked from 1997-2002 and 2006-2012. Heigel rose to the position of President of Duke South Carolina, responsible for regulatory strategy, community and governmental relations, economic development and environmental affairs in the state. She spent the last eighteen months of her time with Duke helping the company facilitate a merger with Progress Energy.
After leaving Duke, Heigel served as General Counsel and Corporate Secretary for the American Transmission Company in Wisconsin, but family concerns prompted a move back to South Carolina. She relocated her three children and dad Tom to Greenville and took a position as General Counsel and corporate Strategies Officer for accounting firm Elliott Davis Decosimo, LLC.
When the DHEC directorship opened up, Heigel was one of ninety-nine nationwide applicants for the job, but her strong background in business management, corporate law and utility regulation separated her from the pack and won her confirmation by The S.C. Board of Health and Environmental Control in late April. The DHEC director is appointed to a four-year term, and is subject to approval by the governor and the advice and consent of the senate.
“I think my combination of small organization and very large organization experience has prepared me well. This is a very large agency,” says Heigel.
DHEC’s multiple and varied responsibilities include promotion and protection of public health through wellness and prevention programs, infectious disease containment and investigation, licensing health care facilities, coastal resource management, and environmental protection – with numerous subcategories and specializations within each category.
Though the agency has suffered budget cuts and staffing consolidation over the past several years, Heigel says DHEC’s charter remains as vast and necessary as ever, and the key to maintaining services is staying flexible, deploying staff to attend crucial matters as they occur, and using the agency’s human and financial resources wisely.
“At the moment we don’t have any major budgetary constraints, depending on what the legislature does,” says Heigel, noting that DHEC’s $600 million annual budget comes from a variety of sources. “A lot of our funding comes from federal grants, fees that we collect from different permitting regimes, and we do get a substantial amount each year from the general assembly.”
One of DHEC’s most public duties is also one of its most challenging: regulating business and industry and protecting our state’s natural resources without alienating job creators. On this matter, Heigel says new high-tech corporate residents of South Carolina – like Volvo – are demonstrating an encouraging standard of collaboration and community responsibility, and this bodes well for both economic development and sound environmental practices among future South Carolina industries.
“As a result of continually evolving environmental regulations, all business and industry over time has had to modernize manufacturing processes to comply with those regulations. One benefit to that is that these industries, when they move to South Carolina, bring those new technologies and processes with them,” says Heigel. “As a state, we are coming into our own. And we can afford to be picky.”