For years, a dam at Pine Tree Lake sat in relative obscurity, an earthen structure that state officials never thought significant enough to inspect.
But as northeast Richland County grew, hundreds of homes and businesses sprouted below the dam. Last October, the dam – a structure that state regulators failed to keep track of – broke during a severe rainstorm and flood that hammered Columbia.
Water poured down Jackson Creek, contributing to the historic deluge that kept Decker Boulevard closed for three weeks. Some homes in the area sustained damage. Businesses lost customers.
State officials now acknowledge the Pine Tree Lake dam was a hazardous structure and should have been regulated by the state.
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If it is ever rebuilt, they plan to regulate it.
But some say the dam needed attention long ago – as do others like it across South Carolina.
There are as many as 1,000 unregulated dams like Pine Tree in South Carolina that the state should be inspecting, one former state official estimates.
Those dams, once relatively harmless rural landmarks, now are ticking threats, awaiting a heavy rain or flood to spill millions of gallons of water onto homes and businesses that didn’t exist when the dams were built.
A better-funded state dam safety program would have allowed South Carolina to track structures like the Pine Tree dam and others that potentially threaten lives downstream, former state program directors said.
We have got a lot of dams like this Pine Tree dam, that – when they were built – may not have been regulated. But they are now capable of a loss-of-life situation downstream. Over time, development creeps underneath them. That is what they call hazard creep. If the agency would have had a larger program .... we would have been able to discover and address more deficient dams.’’
Former dam safety chief John Poole, who worked in the state program from 2008 to 2015
“We have got a lot of dams like this Pine Tree dam, that – when they were built – may not have been regulated,’’ said former dam safety chief John Poole, who worked in the state program from 2008 to 2015. “But they are now capable of a loss-of-life situation downstream. Over time, development creeps underneath them. That is what they call hazard creep.
“If the agency would have had a larger program .... we would have been able to discover and address more deficient dams.’’
1,000 more dams need oversight
The story of the Pine Tree dam is an example of how South Carolina’s failure to fund government services has hurt the state’s citizens during the past decade.
From children dying while under the watch of state Social Services workers to automobile accidents caused by crumbling roads, the state has failed the people it is supposed to serve, say critics of South Carolina’s frugal fiscal policies.
South Carolina’s dam safety program, long one of the most poorly funded in the country, operated for more than a decade on budgets so small that it had only one full-time employee at times. Although recent state budgets have increased funding of the dam-safety program, six of the state’s annual dam safety budgets since 2006 were for less than $200,000.
That meant the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, which operates the dam safety program, wasn’t able to inspect all of the 2,400 dams under its authority as often as it needed to.
It also meant that other dams, including the one at Pine Tree Lake, never fell under the state’s inspection program, even when new development occurred below them. That new development increased the hazard posed by the unregulated dams and should have caused them to be regulated, former dam safety officials say.
But the state’s dam safety program had enough trouble keeping up with the dams it already had to oversee without bringing more dams under its oversight, said former dam safety director Steve Bradley, who headed the DHEC division from 2002-2011.
Bradley estimated as many as 1,000 of the state’s 10,000 to 20,000 unregulated dams may need state oversight.
State agency failed to act
Not everyone thinks the lack of money is the sole reason for problems overseeing dam safety.
DHEC has a history of failing to aggressively administer state laws, said Lois McCarty, who has tangled with the agency in the past over a chemical site in her neighborhood.
McCarty’s husband was one of at least three people who died downstream from dams that failed in the Oct. 4 flood. The body of another victim was found in Cary Lake, below Decker Boulevard and below the Pine Tree dam.
“They just don’t do the work, and I think it comes from the top,’’ McCarty said of DHEC. “They do the bare minimum.’’
They just don’t do the work, and I think it comes from the top. They do the bare minimum.’’
Lois McCarty, whose husband was one of at least three people who died downstream from dams that failed in the Oct. 4 flood, on the state Department of Health and Environmental Control
It may never be known whether better government oversight would have kept the Pine Tree dam from breaking Oct. 4 or how much the dam’s failure contributed to the flooding that occurred on Decker Boulevard.
Owners of the Pine Tree dam say it didn’t fail until the afternoon of Oct. 4, well after the worst flooding was recorded on Decker.
Still, restaurant manager Abdul Adly said he can’t help but think the Pine Tree dam’s failure contributed to the wave of water that kept Decker Boulevard closed for three weeks. Adly estimates he lost at least $15,000 because the October storm delayed the opening of his restaurant.
“If this dam wouldn’t have broken, I don’t think we’d have had around 100 yards of water in front of us,’’ said Adly, who runs Boeshreen Mediterranean Cuisine. “It completely covered the street.’’
16 million gallons released?
Although the exact amount of water that poured through the broken dam isn’t known, calculations by state regulators indicate that up to 16 million gallons could have been released. That is slightly more than the amount of water in 24 Olympic-sized pools.
S.C. officials learned about the Pine Tree Lake dam in the 1980s when the dam safety office was part of the former Land Resources Commission, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control, which began running the program in 1994.
At the time, program officials concluded the Pine Tree dam and its reservoir “did not meet regulatory thresholds,’’ according to an email from DHEC spokeswoman Cassandra Harris. That means the state didn’t think the dam was tall enough, held back enough water or posed enough of a threat to human life downstream to warrant government oversight.
Aerial photographs from the University of South Carolina’s library show the Pine Tree dam has existed since at least 1970. Since then, more than 250 homes and businesses have been developed within about a mile downstream of the dam, according to Richland County property records researched by The State newspaper.
The densely developed area includes retail stores, fast-food restaurants, private homes and large condominium buildings on and around Decker Boulevard.
Adly’s Boeshreen restaurant is in a building erected on Decker Boulevard in 1978, county records show. The 3,200-square-foot building has been remodeled with new furnishings and fresh paint. On a recent weekday afternoon, customers began to stream in for a bite of lunch or to munch on snow cones sold from a window at the restaurant.
Adly said he worked steadily on the renovation project from midsummer 2015 until his restaurant opened, just after the flood hit. High water on Oct. 4 didn’t get inside the building, but it did wreck an automatic teller machine next door.
Business is good today, but the closure of Decker Boulevard through much of October made for bleak times, Adly said.
“It was like we dropped off the map,’’ he said.
Agency says it is re-evaluating dams
Under state law, dams must be regulated if they are at least 25 feet tall and hold back 50 acre-feet of water, the equivalent of about 16 million gallons.
The law also says DHEC can put a dam under its oversight, regardless of its size, if the structure poses a threat to human life should it break.
Former DHEC dam safety staffer Poole, who now works for the city of Aiken, said he looked at the Pine Tree dam a few years ago. Poole said he can’t remember why Health and Environmental Control did not regulate the dam. But he said bringing such a structure under DHEC’s oversight for the first time can take considerable work.
To regulate a dam for the first time, DHEC must research property records to find the owner, conduct field surveys and take measurements to see if the dam meets height requirements. The agency also must look at what property downstream might be flooded if the dam broke and how strict the dam regulation should be. Dams considered high-hazard structures are regulated more tightly than those classified to be low-hazard dams.
Regulating a dam – inspecting it and following up to ensure deficiencies are addressed – is hard to do on skimpy budgets, Bradley and Poole added.
Last October’s flood finally prompted DHEC to look at bringing the Pine Tree dam into its safety program.
That review is part of an agency effort to re-evaluate its oversight of dams, officials say. The agency is examining whether to tighten its regulation of dams that it already oversees, as well as locating other dams that have never been regulated but should be.
“This is an ongoing process, and we will continue to assess the need for reclassification of dams on a case-by-case basis,’’ DHEC spokeswoman Harris said in a recent email to The State.
DHEC, for instance, is examining whether to tighten the classification for the Beaverdam, a structure in Northeast Richland’s Wildewood subdivision that was in peril of failure during the storm.
The department already has tightened regulation of a dam in Spartanburg County and another in northeast Richland County, the North Lake Dam, Harris said. DHEC also has decided to regulate Richland County’s Kennedy dam for the first time, she said.
DHEC says it must OK any rebuilding plans
At the Pine Tree dam, DHEC staff members visited the site and measured the dam early last month.
Subsequently, the Department of Health and Environmental Control told a representative of the dam that the structure has the capacity to hold back enough water to warrant state oversight, which would require regular inspections and emergency response plans.
The department’s letter to the Pine Tree Lake Co. says it has found at least one home on Bagpipe Road, below the dam, that is in particular danger of being flooded by a dam break. The letter did not provide the address, but, the night of the storm, water rose to the second level of a home closest to the dam. It was unclear if water pouring over the Pine Tree dam caused the problem or if the dam’s break contributed – or both.
Agency officials now are trying to determine whether to classify the dam as a high-hazard structure, which means it could threaten human life, if it is rebuilt and fails again. They have told the Pine Tree Lake Co. to submit information by the end of this month that could affect a final decision on whether to regulate the dam should it be rebuilt.
“Should you wish to do any repair work to the dam, approval will need to be obtained from the department,’’ according to the letter from DHEC’s Jill Stewart to the Pine Tree Lake Co.
If the government is not going to regulate it, then who is? You can’t depend on citizens to only check on the quality of a dam or a bridge.
Decker Boulevard restaurateur Abdul Adly
The Pine Tree Lake Co., which owns the lake, is unsure whether it will seek to replace the dam, according to an email to The State newspaper from William Haselden, a principal in a club that is one of two representatives of the Pine Tree Lake Co.
Haselden has said the dam was maintained properly through the years.
Haselden’s group, Pine Tree Hunt Club Inc., owns forested property with a clubhouse for social gatherings on one side of Pine Tree Lake. The other side of the lake, near Yorkhouse Road, is lined by about a dozen modest homes.
Since the dam’s failure in October, the lake bed has dried out, exposing the old channel of Jackson Creek. Much of the lake bed looks like a marsh, with bright green grass now lining the channel. Docks from homes sit dry and exposed on mud flats.
A huge hole runs through the side of what’s left of the dam. The remaining part of the structure is covered in trees and brush, which, dam experts say, can threaten the stability of earthen dams.
The Pine Tree dam failure has reinforced an important point to restaurant manager Adly: The state, rather than private dam owners, must look out for the welfare of those downstream.
“If the government is not going to regulate it, then who is?’’Adly asked. “You can’t depend on citizens to only check on the quality of a dam or a bridge.”
Second in a monthly series: A decade after the Great Recession, South Carolina state government is reeling. Why? And what can be done?
Unsafe dams: The findings
▪ South Carolina’s dam safety program – one of the nation’s most poorly funded – couldn’t inspect as often as needed the 2,400 dams under its supervision
▪ A former state dam safety official say the program should have overseen an additional 1,000 dams but lacked the resources
▪ The program now says it is re-evaluating the threat posed by unregulated dams, including several in Richland County
SC’s dam dilemma
Number of dams that the state’s dam safety now oversees
Number of additional dams that the state should oversee, according to a former dam safety official
10,000 to 20,000
Unregulated dams in South Carolina
Pine Tree Lake
State officials learn of the existence of Pine Tree Lake; aerial photos show the lake has existed since at least 1970
Number of businesses and homes that have been built below the lake’s dam
The state Department of Health and Environmental Control takes over the dam safety program, determining the Pine Tree Lake dam “did not meet regulatory thresholds” that required state oversight
Number of gallons of water behind the unregulated Pine Tree Lake dam when it failed last October, according to estimates by state regulators. Those regulators now say any plans to rebuild the lake’s dam will require their approval.