A year-long effort to dramatically upgrade South Carolina’s beleaguered dam safety program didn’t prevent at least 25 dams from failing during Hurricane Matthew last weekend.
The dams, almost all in eastern South Carolina, cracked and ruptured as drenching rains pounded the Pee Dee, causing rivers, creeks and ponds to spill their banks.
This year’s failures occurred almost exactly a year after 51 state-regulated dams breached during a historic flood that blasted Columbia and coastal South Carolina. Following the October 2015 flood, the Legislature more than doubled the state’s dam safety budget and sharply increased staffing.
However, the General Assembly failed to pass legislation that would have increased regulation of dams and given state regulators more authority to enforce the rules.
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Some of the dams broken by Matthew had drawn scrutiny from state environmental regulators after last year’s flood, records show.
Among the dams that failed last weekend was a Clarendon County structure that breached during the 2015 flood and was undergoing repairs at the state Department of Health and Environmental Control’s direction, according to agency records and emails.
Another was a Dillon County dam whose owner was told by DHEC to make improvements so the earthen structure would not erode, an August 2016 inspection report says. The agency said the owner should seed the dam with grass, while also watching for signs of seepage.
“Maintenance activities not requiring a permit should be undertaken immediately, and repeated as often as necessary to prevent a hazardous situation from arising,’’ according to an Aug. 16, 2016, inspection letter. It was unknown Thursday night if those improvements had been made.
The 25 dams that DHEC said failed after Matthew are in Clarendon, Darlington, Dillon, Florence, Lee, Horry, Marion, Chesterfield, Marlboro and Lexington counties. The agency also is watching two dams that did not break, but are in danger of doing so in Marion and Florence counties.
One Columbia lawyer familiar with dam safety issues questioned why more wasn’t done to shore up dams before Matthew blustered through.
Pete Strom, who has sued dam owners in Columbia on behalf of downstream property owners, said dams should not break if properly built and maintained. Broken dams can cause damage to property downstream, and in some cases, result in death.
“There is no education in the second kick of a mule,’’ he said. “Everybody should have learned after last year that they need to get their dams checked.’’
“But it’s also disappointing the state is not doing a better job regulating these dams.’’
DHEC officials said they’ve made progress in improving dam safety, issuing 75 emergency orders against dam owners after the October 2015 flood. But the agency says it isn’t easy. When the agency locates dam owners, they sometimes can’t afford to repair or rebuild the structures, agency officials say. The cost of a new dam can top $1 million.
“It is very expensive to fix these dams,’’ DHEC director Catherine Heigel told the DHEC board at Thursday’s monthly meeting.
The department said in a statement that some dam failures are difficult to avoid when massive rains fall.
“Earthen dams are susceptible to failure during a major storm event like Hurricane Matthew or last October’s historic floods,’’ the statement said. “Like last year, we experienced an incredible storm event, the impacts of which were further compounded by poor maintenance and dams that were constructed prior to regulations.’’
After years of running one of the nation’s most threadbare dam safety programs, DHEC received nearly $600,000 extra from the Legislature in 2016 so it could add staff to inspect and better regulate dams. Through the years, the department had failed to inspect many dams as often as it wanted to because the Legislature provided little money for the program.
The extra money from the Legislature increased the department’s dam safety budget to about $1 million, more than doubling the amount of money dedicated to the program. Today, DHEC has about 13 positions in the dam safety program, up from six last year.
DHEC already had put major emphasis on improving the program following the 51 dam failures that resulted from the October 2015 flood. Agency staffers from other programs helped the department’s dam safety program, as did officials with federal agencies, which helped inspect and document problems.
In the weeks following the October 2015 storm, the department inspected more than 650 of the dams most likely to cause property damage or loss of life to determine what kind of shape the mostly earthen structures were in. State lawmakers have praised Heigel’s efforts to improve the dam safety program, and DHEC says it has had success in getting some dams upgraded.
Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, and Rep. Roger Kirby, D-Florence, said a natural disaster like Matthew was bound to damage some dams. Sheheen also said it’s hard to erase long-term neglect in the dam safety program.
“In a major disaster, some repercussions are going to occur; some dams will fail,’’ Sheheen said after speaking at a Clemson University water conference in Columbia. “My sense is the state has still not caught up to its responsibilities to inspect and improve the dams. The neglect has occurred for 30 years.’’
One of the major stumbling blocks to tighter oversight of dams is state law, Sheheen said. DHEC needs more authority, he said.
Lawmakers last year discussed a series of tougher rules, but backed down after rural landowners complained that tougher rules could be an intrusion on their rights. The rules would have increased inspections in heavily populated areas, toughened penalties and required dam owners to post bonds to remove structures, if the dams became unsafe. House members have formed a new committee to discuss changing the law.
Heigel spent much of the day Thursday briefing state policy makers and others about what the agency has discovered since Matthew. At Thursday’s DHEC board meeting, she showed slides of failed dams across the Pee Dee.
“We have so many structures weakened by last year’s flood,’’ Heigel said.