About 20 percent of the people told by the state to repair dams battered by last year’s historic flood have failed to respond – and South Carolina’s top environmental regulator says that could cost taxpayers.
Catherine Heigel, director at the Department of Health and Environmental Control, said Thursday that non-compliance problems, as well as issues with dams hammered by Hurricane Matthew last month, have the agency in need of more money for dam safety.
DHEC is developing a one-time, supplemental budget request on dams that will be submitted to the Legislature. Heigel did not say how much the agency would ask for. She made her remarks at Thursday’s DHEC board meeting.
“At some point the state has to step in and take action,’’ Heigel said, referring to work that must be done on dams. “That action could be fairly minor. Even minor vegetation removal is still costly. Or it could be to the extent of engineering a permanent breach.’’
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Permanently breaching a dam is essentially removing what’s left of a broken structure. The department currently is working to breach two dams, according to DHEC.
Since the October 2015 flood, some dam owners have said they could not afford the expense of rebuilding or repairing dams. Many of the structures were made of earth and built generations ago. Homeowners associations, some of them with limited funds, are often in charge of maintaining dams.
“They simply don’t have the money; if they had the money, they would do it,’’ state Rep. Jimmy Bales, D-Richland, said. “I probably have eight to 10 dam owners down Leesburg Road — they can’t raise the money.
“I feel sorry for them.’’
Heigel said she’s aware that using tax dollars to deal with non-compliant private dams will be an issue. The Legislature returns to Columbia in January.
“I do expect that we are going to have a pretty robust conversation around the significant amounts of money that the state is spending to address private dam failures or potential failures,’’ she said.
DHEC also is discussing with Legislators a plan to tighten some dam safety regulations.
Making sure dams are in good shape is an important safety issue, particularly in areas where homes are downstream. A broken dam can send torrents of water downstream at one time, which can endanger people’s lives.
DHEC hopes to get some money back from dam owners or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The department has prepared eight invoices, ranging from a few thousand dollars to more than $100,000, she said.
Department spokeswoman Jennifer Read said the agency issued more than 260 directives for dam owners to make repairs after last year’s flood, but more than 50 of them have not responded. That includes 19 that received emergency orders to make repairs, Read said. Emergency orders are considered more serious than other types of directives. Some of those cases have been referred for possible enforcement, which could include fines.
The Legislature approved nearly $600,000 for DHEC’s dam safety program last spring that officials say substantially improved the department’s efforts to regulate and oversee dams after years of inattention. The increases added enough money to double the size of the program.
But the funding didn’t cover non-compliance by dam owners in the Columbia area and other parts of the state. Nor did the appropriation take into account this year’s hurricane that socked dam owners in the Pee Dee. Statewide, more than 50 state regulated dams failed during the 2015 flood, and at least 20 regulated dams broke in the 2016 hurricane.
South Carolina for years had one of the most poorly funded dam safety programs in the country, which meant DHEC was not able to inspect dams as frequently as experts recommend.
That lack of oversight has been blamed for some of the dam failures in the Gills Creek Watershed of Columbia last year. Many dam owners have since worked with DHEC to repair and rebuild dams since 2015.