South Carolina should set specific requirements for how quickly dam owners alert authorities about breaches, and the state should bolster dam safety training and education programs, experts said.
The recommendations follow a historic rain storm in October that ruptured dozens of dams statewide. A 2013 survey by a national dam safety association shows South Carolina does not follow many standards established by the group.
After the October storm, state officials called for improving the regulation of dams in South Carolina. But specific recommendations for fixes have not been unveiled.
Only one piece of dam-related legislation was filed during the first of two weeks when state legislators can prefile bills before they start meeting next month. State regulators also are working on proposals to change safety regulations, but they have yet to reveal their plans for South Carolina’s 2,400 regulated dams.
“We can’t keep patching things up,” said state Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican who sits on the Senate agriculture and natural resources committee. “We have done a lot of patching up for the past 50 years.”
The storm on Oct. 4 dumped three months’ worth of rain in a day over some parts of South Carolina and burst 33 regulated dams and an untold number of dams not monitored by the state. Some of the dams broke in populated areas, especially around Columbia. Some homes were flooded and some property washed away along creeks where dams burst.
Most regulated dams in the state are privately owned and are usually run by homeowners associations. Association leaders often are not experts in maintenance of earthen structures that hold back millions of gallons of water and, in some cases, date back a century.
The state agency that oversees dams, the Department of Health and Environmental Control, already unveiled plans to ask lawmakers for additional funding for dam safety. The state’s funding for dam safety ranked 45th in the nation in 2013, according to a survey by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.
But work is needed on state laws and regulations, experts said.
In a 2013 survey that asked states how well they follow model dam safety programs, South Carolina answered “no” on more than 70 questions in which most other states said “yes.”
DHEC said South Carolina has not changed dam safety laws and regulations since the survey was completed almost three years ago.
Lawmakers on committees that will weigh changes to the law are waiting to hear from DHEC.
“We don’t pay attention to issues like this until we have a situation like we had with the flood and then that bring things to the forefront,” said Rep. David Hiott, a Pickens Republican who chairs the House agriculture, natural resources and environmental affairs committee. “We’ll let them decide what we should take a look at and come to the committee. It’s all new to us.”
Shealy wondered if the state should consider regulating some additional dams, especially those with state or county roads going across them. Thousands of unregulated dams dot South Carolina.
“They probably need to regulate more dams than they do now,” she said.
Still, Shealy added: “We don’t want to end up regulating everyone who has a pond in their backyard.”
Steven Bradley, who ran DHEC’s dam safety program for nine years until he retired in 2011, warned of “regulatory overkill” for many dams in South Carolina. But he sees room for improvement, especially for dams in more heavily populated areas.
Bradley joined other experts in offering suggestions for strengthening the state’s rules after reading South Carolina’s responses to the 2013 survey. The suggestions include:
South Carolina should strengthen requirements for the emergency plans that the owners of regulated dams must draft.
South Carolina is just one of nine states that do not require immediate notification of residents downstream of “any condition” that threatens the dam’s safety, according to the 2013 survey.
State laws and regulations do not set a time period for informing people about the danger of a failing dam, although DHEC’s form for emergency plans tells owners to call emergency responders immediately.
Also South Carolina does not require dam owners to periodically test emergency plans that include how dam owners can reach police, state regulators, emergency management officials and residents downstream.
In the 2013 survey, 23 states said they required periodic tests of emergency plans on dams in highly populated areas.
“You need to test them because names, telephone numbers, emails change,” said Bruce Tschantz, a former federal dam safety official who taught about dams for three decades at the University of Tennessee. “Every jurisdiction changes.”
The plans should be tested every three to five years, he said.
South Carolina is one of just four states that do not establish owners’ responsibilities for operating a dam and one of 13 states that do not require a permit to operate a dam, according to the survey.
South Carolina law says that a dam owner “solely is responsible for maintaining the dam or reservoir in a safe condition throughout the life of the structure.” The only other requirement is that dam owners in heavily populated areas must create emergency plans.
Adding specific language about the owners’ responsibilities in state law or regulations could mean “the failure of a dam does not necessarily end up with a lot of finger pointing,” Tschantz said.
“Everyone knows who’s in charge.”
Construction and repair
Another issue experts raised was requiring S.C. dam owners to provide updates on construction and repair projects.
South Carolina is just one of three states that do not require notices when work starts, status reports or approval of supervisors. Major changes in the midst of construction or repair work must be approved by DHEC.
“This helps to ensure that the dam is constructed properly, and there won’t be safety issues down the road,” said Mark Ogden, program manager for the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.
Educating inspectors and owners
Most states require teaching inspectors about how to enter dam sites legally, how to conduct field measurements and visual inspections, and how to communicate. South Carolina said in the survey that it did not provide that instruction.
DHEC is working to improve that already. More than 50 agency staff members attended a three-day dam inspection seminar last month held by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials in Columbia. The seminar was planned before the October storm after DHEC said it reached out to the association over the summer.
Also, South Carolina is unlike most states, which offer regular training programs for dam owners, according to the association survey.
DHEC said it last offered dam owner education programs in 2010 when Bradley was in charge of dam safety.
“We had several of these in different areas of the state, including Florence, Lancaster, Greenville, Aiken and Columbia,” he said. “I also met with concerned owners of dams individually or with groups to try to help them understand their responsibilities as owners.”
Tschantz suggested the state should consider a rotation for training programs: dam owners could be trained one year, emergency officials the following year, and engineers the third year.
Meanwhile, South Carolina was just one of four states that don’t offer safety materials to dam owners – a missing element in educating the people ultimately responsible for dams, experts said.
South Carolina state laws and regulations do not specify how often DHEC inspects dams, although the agency said those plans are included in its standard operating procedures.
Dams in most heavily populated areas should be inspected every two years, DHEC said. Dams in more populated areas are on a three-year cycle, while dams that pose the least threat to property and lives get checkups every five years.
Tschantz said the timing should be made clear in state laws or regulations so everyone – especially dam owners, residents downstream from dams and legislators – knows when the dams should be inspected.
“It makes it more formal,” he said.