Four months after a massive flood exposed flaws in South Carolina’s dam safety program, support for strengthening the law is eroding as legislators grow increasingly nervous about backlash from dam owners.
House Speaker Jay Lucas had proposed more frequent inspections of dams in heavily populated areas, increasing penalties for people who don’t keep dams safe and requiring owners of high hazard dams to post bonds that would pay to remove the structures if the earthen embankments become dangerous to people.
But private dam owners are complaining — and members of a House panel agreed Tuesday to scale back the legislation Lucas proposed in late 2015.
The House agriculture subcommittee voted unanimously to reduce the frequency of inspections proposed by Lucas, limit penalties for dam owners who violate the law and drop altogether the plan to post bonds to fund removal of shaky dams.
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Subcommittee members said it’s wrong to react to a rare flood with a bundle of complicated regulations that would hurt average property owners. Many property owners have complained at hearings in recent weeks, saying they can’t afford to comply with stricter rules.
“We have all acknowledged the fact that what took place in October was a very unique situation,’’ Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun said. “Many people have called it a 1,000-year event. And I just certainly don’t want us, for lack of a better word, to have a knee-jerk reaction to something that we certainly hope we’ll never see again.’’
Whether the amended bill can get through the Legislature this year is a major question. The four-member agriculture subcommittee spent more than three hours on the bill Tuesday and plans to propose more amendments when the legislation gets to the full committee Thursday. The bill also needs House and Senate approval — and the upper chamber has numerous other major bills to deal with before the Legislative session ends in late spring.
“If we are surfacing this many questions with four members today, what is going to happen when we get to 124 (House members)?” Ott asked. “It’s a lot to try to digest. There are going to be a lot of questions.”
Ott noted that some of the changes aren’t as strong as Lucas proposed, but are tougher than existing state law. Lucas, R-Darlington, said the bill was an attempt to improve South Carolina’s dam safety effort.
“It appeared that dams were not being regulated or classified correctly,” Lucas said. “We just really wanted to take a look at how we were doing things and see if there was a way to do it better.”
The committee’s vote Tuesday follows a storm in early October that broke records across the state for rainfall and flooding. During the storm, dozens of dams across South Carolina broke, sending water gushing downstream and toward neighboring property. In the Columbia area alone, about 45 dams, both regulated and unregulated, failed.
As the storm subsided, many people questioned why South Carolina had not been more vigilant in making sure dams could withstand the heavy rain. South Carolina’s dam safety program for years had been one of the most poorly funded in the country, routinely operating on a budget of $200,000 or less. Many inspections were not done because the state did not have enough manpower, DHEC officials acknowledged. South Carolina has about 2,400 regulated dams and up to 20,000 that are not regulated. Almost all of them are privately owned, community dams.
Since the early October flood, DHEC has asked for an additional $595,000 to get the dam safety program to a minimal level of service so that more dams could be inspected. The Lucas bill was proposed to strengthen the law like other states have done.
The bill approved Tuesday in some cases tones down what Lucas had proposed, but in others, appears to weaken existing state oversight.
The agriculture committee’s decision, for instance, drops some dams from state oversight by increasing the size of the dams that would fall under regulation. Instead of regulating dams of at least 25 feet high, the bill increases the height to 30 feet.
At the same time, the bill would require state regulators to conduct many inspections that dam owners now are required by law to do. That could cost the Department of Health and Environmental Control substantial dollars, DHEC’s David Wilson said.
Other proposed changes include:
▪ Reducing the frequency of regular dam inspections proposed in the Lucas legislation. Instead of requiring annual inspections for high hazard dams, such inspections would be required every two years.
▪ Reducing how often the owners of high hazard and significant hazard dams must update emergency action plans. Instead of requiring the plans to be updated every year as the Lucas legislation proposed, the plans would have to be updated only every two years for high hazard dams.
▪ Dropping a proposal in the Lucas legislation to require a bond, or financial assurance, to pay for a high hazard dam to be removed at the owner’s expense if it posed a hazard downstream.
▪ Dropping part of the existing law that allows citizen complaints to trigger a preliminary inspection of a dam suspected of being unsafe.