S.C. lawmakers again expressed skepticism Thursday about the need to tighten the state’s dam-safety law, 11 months after a historic storm burst 45 dams in the Columbia area.
After proposed tougher dam regulations died in the Legislature last spring, state regulators Thursday proposed lawmakers require S.C. dam owners to register with the state, check their dams each year for problems and, in some cases, hire a professional engineer to conduct periodic inspections.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control also asked legislators to allow it to regulate small dams that, if breached, could lead to damaged roads, utilities or property.
But an S.C. House panel peppered DHEC’s David Wilson with questions for most of the 90-minute meeting.
Legislators appeared nowhere near reaching a consensus on what should be done.
The state’s regulation of dams has come under scrutiny since dozens of dams across South Carolina broke during record rains last October, contributing to hundreds of millions of dollars in flooding damage and several deaths. About 45 dams failed in the Columbia area alone.
A bill proposed by S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, in late 2015 would have boosted the state’s dam-safety program, labeled by experts as deficient and underfunded.
But that proposal died when the legislative session ended in June. Farmers and rural property owners objected that more frequent inspections and tougher penalties for dam owners would cause an undue burden.
State legislators did boost the budget of DHEC’s dam-safety program to more than $1 million from nearly $470,000, allowing it to more than double its full-time employees to nearly 14.
Echoing concerns voiced during the last legislative session, some lawmakers Thursday said they fear a knee-jerk reaction to last fall’s historic deluge.
“I don’t want to swing the pendulum from one side to the other,” said state Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun, who represents a rural, farming area. “I don’t want to go from perhaps not having a regulatory program that is sufficient to having one that is overly burdensome and ... creating other issues that were unintended.”
State Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Spartanburg, agreed, saying, “This is an issue that I worry we’re going to overkill.”
“Existing legislation, for the most part, handles an awful lot of what we’re doing,” Chumley said.
Any proposed legislation should focus more on urban areas, such as Richland County, where flooding from broken dams caused damage to homes and businesses, Ott said. “Let’s truly focus on where the problem occurred.”
DHEC’s Wilson said the agency’s proposal and its classification of dams does just that.
DHEC considers a dam to be hazardous – and in need of tighter regulation – if its failure could lead to death or significant damage to downstream infrastructure or property. By definition, Wilson said, those dams are most often in urban areas.
Forty-two of South Carolina’s 178 high-hazard dams are in Richland County, according to DHEC. And 49 of the state’s 472 significant-hazard dams are in Richland County.
Wilson also told lawmakers DHEC needs owners of the state’s roughly 2,400 regulated dams to register so the agency has up-to-date information on who owns the structures, which can change hands.
DHEC also wants dam owners to be required to look at their structures each year and submit a checklist inspection to the agency. Owners of high- and significant-hazard dams also should be required to provide the agency an “emergency action plan,” including current contact information for downstream residents and businesses that could be affected by a breach.
Owners of high-hazard dams would have to hire a professional engineer to assess the dam’s condition and hazard potential every five years, if lawmakers approve DHEC’s suggestions. State regulators asked that owners have significant-hazard dams, which are less dangerous, inspected every 10 years.
Wilson said “very few” of the dams that failed during last fall’s storm were professionally inspected.
DHEC already inspects high-hazard dams every two years and significant-hazard dams every three years. But adding another set of eyes would “be another layer of safety,” Wilson said.
“We can work with an inspection-type checklist for those engineers that would be looking at the dams – something that would be more straightforward, something that could be more easily accomplished, not take as much resources, not be as costly,” Wilson said.
Tougher dam-safety laws?
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has proposed three major changes to the state's dam-safety law.
▪ Dam owners annually would register with the agency, submit an owner-completed inspection of the dam each year and — for high- and significant-hazard dams — provide an updated "emergency action plan,” including current contact information for downstream residents and businesses that could be affected by a dam failure.
▪ DHEC would be given oversight over "very small" dams that, if breached, pose a risk to roads, utilities and property. DHEC currently can regulate only 10 "very small" dams where a failure potentially could lead to loss of life.
▪ Owners of high-hazard dams would be required to hire a professional engineer to assess the dam's condition and hazard potential every five years. Owners of significant-hazard dams would be required to bring in an engineer every 10 years.