South Carolina’s environmental agency is seeking $5 million in next year’s budget to shore up, inspect or remove dams in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, the second major storm to smack the state in two years.
South Carolina needs $2.3 million to stabilize or tear down about 24 dams shaken by Hurricane Matthew and about $3 million to inspect most of the state’s other dams to ensure they are in optimum shape, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The request to increase DHEC’s budget for dams is contained in the department’s 2017-2018 budget plan, which was completed last week.
“DHEC’s dam safety program has dealt with two disasters in two years, which has strained an already limited budget,’’ the agency said in its budget request to lawmakers. The request said DHEC needs money “to place dams into a safe status and to provide detailed information on dams around the state to help mitigate future impacts.’’
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The agency’s plan, if approved by lawmakers next year, brings to more than $8 million the amount of money taxpayers will have spent on dam safety issues since a historic flood in 2015, the agency’s budget request says. The nearly $5 million proposed in next year’s budget would be a one-time, non-recurring increase.
Between last year’s flood and Hurricane Matthew in October, at least 70 state-regulated dams burst as rising water crashed against the aging structures and overtopped many of them. Hundreds of other dams sustained damage. At least 20 of the 70 regulated dams that failed broke during Hurricane Matthew.
State Rep. Bill Clyburn, who sits on a committee that examines DHEC’s budget, said the state has to spend money because its dam safety program was neglected for so long. Like South Carolina’s weather-beaten roads and bridges, dams need improvement, he said. Agency director Catherine Heigel said earlier this month the agency would be seeking additional money for dam safety.
“We have just got to keep running until we catch up,’’ Clyburn, D-Aiken, said. “There is going to be some discontent about putting (more) funds into getting these things done. But we are going to have to if we are ever going to level off.’’
Both DHEC and the owners of earthen dams have been under fire since the October 2015 flood. The department for years had one of the nation’s most poorly funded dam safety programs, which meant many dams were not inspected as often as they should have been. Many of the dams were overseen by farmers and homeowners associations with limited expertise in dam safety.
But the October 2015 flood exposed shortcomings in the DHEC program after at least 51 regulated dams broke, mostly in the Columbia area. The flood caused millions of dollars in property damage downstream of dams, sparking lawsuits by downstream landowners against dam owners.
Recent research at the University of South Carolina found some dams that broke or sustained damage during the 2015 flood were 60-100 years old and made largely of sand. As a result, that made some of them more vulnerable to failure from internal erosion, according to a research paper presented this month at a flood conference in Columbia.
The USC research, which looked at nine dams, said some of the structures failed after the downstream slopes began to erode. Tree roots also potentially created pathways for erosion, the research shows.
Following the 2015 storm, the Legislature more than doubled DHEC’s dam safety budget, which allowed the agency to double the program’s staff size so that more inspections could be done. All told, the Legislature approved more than $3 million in recurring and non-recurring funds last year to address failing dams, the department said. The Legislature now also is looking to tighten state law.
Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, said he could support more funding for dam safety because it is a public safety issue.
“The damage that has come from both of these storms tells us this is not to be taken lightly,’’ said Simrill, a member of the House’s main budget committee. “This is part of a bigger issue, and that is the proper funding of programs that protect South Carolinians.’’
DHEC says about 19 percent of the people whose dams were damaged during the 2015 flood have not responded to agency requests to repair or take other actions to make dams safe. All told, the agency issued repair orders or sent letters to 266 dam owners after the October flood. The department already is spending money to deal with nonresponsive dam owners.
Now, DHEC says taxpayers will have to spend more money to deal with hurricane-blasted dams that owners can’t, or won’t, repair. Some people say they don’t have the money to fix or tear down dams.
The agency says it expects state action is needed to address 24 of 136 dams whose owners have been told to make repairs or remove them, records show. At least three of those damaged by Hurricane Matthew will have to be breached, or removed, the department says.
DHEC’s budget request for next year not only includes money to deal with Hurricane Matthew, but the department also is trying to catch up and examine dams that, so far, have held up in the past two storms. DHEC wants to hire a contractor to inspect all of the state’s dams at a cost of $1,500 per review. The department says it also needs four new trucks, six iPad computers and six sets of personal protective equipment.
In addition to dams, DHEC is seeking new funds to support an array of programs the department says need help. DHEC did not say Tuesday how much more it is seeking overall, but the department’s budget plan indicates the amount is about $18 million to $20 million. DHEC’s overall state budget last year was about $131 million, approximately $24 million more than the previous year.
Among other requests in next year’s budget plan, the department is seeking more money to bolster a health program for children exposed to lead; additional funds for hemophilia and colon cancer programs; money to retain nurses; and funds to clean up leaking gasoline storage tanks.