- Associated Press - Thursday, November 12, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s public health agency is issuing fines that could amount to nearly $51,000 against three abortion clinics and two waste disposal companies for violations concerning the disposal of fetuses.

The proposed fines range from $2,200 to $21,150 for violating state disposal regulations, Department of Health and Environmental Control Director Catherine Heigel told a House panel Thursday.

They are the latest fines stemming from an investigation requested by Gov. Nikki Haley in August. The request followed the release of secretly taped videos showing Planned Parenthood officials in other states discussing the collection of fetal organs for research.

Less than a month later, DHEC suspended the licenses of two of the state’s three abortion clinics and fined them a combined $10,250. The threatened closures marked a first for the agency. Ultimately, sanctions were lifted and neither clinic had to close.

Violations cited in the five consent orders dated Friday include paperwork issues and fetuses being sterilized with steam and taken to a landfill, rather than incinerated as required by law - issues also cited in the clinics’ suspensions. The lowest proposed fine is against the Charleston Women’s Medical Center - not among the clinics suspended - for not accurately reporting the amount of waste it generates on its registration renewal.

The proposed orders give 30 days to pay a fine, but they note the amounts are under discussion. According to the agency, the largest fine would be against Planned Parenthood.

Jenny Black, regional president of Planned Parenthood, said she’s “surprised and dismayed” to learn about the proposed amount through a legislative hearing.

“No monetary amount related to a penalty was mentioned” in the order, Black said, adding the organization will continue to cooperate fully with DHEC. “We hold ourselves to high standards and take swift action to address any shortcomings.”

GOP Rep. Gary Clary, chairman of the House Oversight panel, applauded Heigel for “tightening up” on inspections. His committee launched its own investigation into Planned Parenthood following the videos’ release. Republican legislators have criticized DHEC as being too lax with the abortion clinics.

A report released by the Legislative Audit Council in May found the agency hadn’t consistently inspected the clinics as required by law and had imposed no penalties for violations, with the exception of an expired license.

Heigel, who took the DHEC’s helm a month later, said Thursday the agency has better trained staff and changed how inspections are conducted, including joint inspections by the agency’s infectious waste and health licensing divisions.

“We are substantially better positioned to effectively regulate these facilities,” she said. “At the end of the day, our role as regulator is to protect the health and safety of patients who use these facilities.”

Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, said the investigations have found nothing illegal or even close to the allegations that prompted the Oversight Committee to launch its own review.

“They’ve raised their level of scrutiny,” Smith said of DHEC after Heigel’s arrival. “But the bottom line is, not one iota of what was alleged has been proven true.”

As for the Sept. 11 suspension orders, DHEC lifted sanctions Sept. 28 against the Greenville Women’s Clinic after it addressed its six violations, paid a $2,750 fine and submitted proof of staff training. Planned Parenthood paid a $7,500 penalty for 21 cited violations and submitted correction plans by the Sept. 28 deadline but asked DHEC to reconsider some of the violations, putting the suspension on hold. The cited violations included incomplete staff records and abortions performed sooner than 60 minutes after an ultrasound.

DHEC cleared Planned Parenthood’s Columbia clinic on Nov. 6, and the organization withdrew its request, Heigel said.

Representatives of the other two clinics and the disposal companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Of the three abortion clinics in South Carolina, Planned Parenthood operates only the one in Columbia.

Planned Parenthood officials have repeatedly said none of the organization’s clinics in the South Atlantic region - which includes the Carolinas, West Virginia and much of Virginia - participates in fetal tissue collection.

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