- Associated Press - Thursday, July 13, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s public health director announced Thursday that she’s leaving the agency after two years to take a private sector job.

Director Catherine Heigel’s resignation was announced during a regularly scheduled meeting of the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s board of directors, where she said leading the agency has been the “professional privilege of a lifetime.”

In a release, the agency said Heigel is returning to Greenville to serve as chief operating officer for the accounting and business firm Elliott Davis. As of Aug. 5, longtime agency employee David E. Wilson will serve as acting director of the sprawling department, which has more than 3,500 employees responsible for regulating everything from pharmaceuticals to reservoirs.

DHEC Board member Clarence Batts Jr. said Heigel has energized the agency’s employees and set the department up for success. Among other things, she led a privatization of the agency’s home health care business and promoted a citizen volunteer program with Clemson University to help monitor water quality in the state’s lakes, rivers and streams.

Four months after Heigel took over in June 2015, she helped shepherd the state through historic flooding that caused dozens of state-regulated dams to burst, prompting scrutiny of DHEC’s regulation process.

Heigel discussed the difficulties her agency was facing with lawmakers, who beefed up the state’s dam inspection budget and staffing, but declined to approve more regulations or give inspectors more enforcement authority. A year later, dams became an issue again when at least two dozen failed during Hurricane Matthew, causing rivers and ponds to surge past their banks.

Heigel won broad praise from state lawmakers during her May 2015 confirmation hearings. It was a striking difference from the committee’s tough questioning in February of Eleanor Kitzman, then-Gov. Nikki Haley’s previous pick for the position. The governor’s longtime friend withdrew before a second day of questioning.

Heigel began her career in 1995 as an attorney with the state Department of Consumer Affairs. She joined Duke Energy in 1997 and was president of the utility’s South Carolina operations from March 2010 to June 2012.

As an attorney with Elliot Davis prior to her stint at DHEC, Heigel served on the boards of the Nature Conservancy’s state chapter and state-owned utility Santee Cooper, positions she resigned upon confirmation.

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Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP. Read more of her work at https://apnews.com/search/meg%20kinnard.

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