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Dam safety comes with a price, DHEC chief tells lawmakers

Water pours across the Spring Lake dam in Arcadia Lakes after a dam burst upstream during historic flooding Oct. 4.
Water pours across the Spring Lake dam in Arcadia Lakes after a dam burst upstream during historic flooding Oct. 4.

COLUMBIA, SC Two months after dams crumbled across South Carolina, lawmakers learned Friday that it will cost more than $1 million to hire more staff and improve the state’s much criticized dam safety law.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said the dam safety program has been seriously underfunded and needs an infusion of cash just to make sure DHEC can properly inspect and monitor South Carolina’s 2,400 dams.

Doing that would cost $595,000 more than the state now is spending. But tightening the law, as proposed in a bill introduced this week, will cost DHEC another $769,070, department officials said.

Taking both steps would swell DHEC’s dam safety budget to $1.8 million and increase the number of employees by 13, according to budget figures released Friday during a House Ways and Means subcommittee meeting in Columbia. DHEC now has fewer than seven employees in the dam safety program and a budget of $469,000.

Adding more money would help DHEC inspect more dams, but “would be up to you all as policymakers to determine what level of oversight you want,’’ DHEC director Catherine Heigel told the budget committee.

The bill to tighten dam safety standards, introduced by House Speaker Jay Lucas, would require DHEC to increase the number of dams it inspects and to more frequently inspect dams in highly populated areas. It also would toughen penalties against those who break dam safety laws. Lucas, R-Darlington, was not available for comment Friday.

Some legislators are sure to question the cost, but state Rep. Murrell Smith, who chairs the subcommittee, said he’s inclined to support more funding for dam safety and tightening the law. Smith, R-Sumter, said improvements are needed in the aftermath of floods Oct. 4.

Those floods caused about three dozen DHEC regulated dams to break across South Carolina. Dozens of dams not regulated by DHEC also breached in the storm. Most of the dams broke in the Columbia area, where more than a foot of rain fell.

“We tend to react to problems,’’ Smith said. “If the Legislature passes a bill that deals with more enforcement and inspection of dams, it would be incumbent on us to fund that. I don’t think this would be a year where we would mandate something and then not fund it as it relates to this.’’

Friday’s committee discussion came during a broader budget presentation by Heigel, who said the agency is struggling to provide basic services on a number of environmental and health programs. Her agency is seeking a budget increase of about $25 million in recurring funds. It also is seeking about $11 million in non-recurring funds. Much of the money would be used to bring programs up to standard after years of cost cutting, officials said.

DHEC’s current state-funded budget is $106 million, but it would exceed $140 million under the budget request for next year. That would put the agency’s overall budget at the highest it has been since 2008, officials said after Friday’s meeting. At one point in the past decade, the budget had dipped to less than $83 million because of the recession.

Heigel said dam safety is one of the programs that have suffered from a lack of funding. She said that while DHEC tries to work with the owners of dams that fail to meet standards, the agency sometimes must take enforcement actions. And that isn’t easy to do without proper staffing, she said.

“We do have a role at the end of the day to keep people safe,’’ Heigel said.

For years, DHEC’s dam safety program was among the most poorly funded in the nation, with its budget around $200,000. Although the agency had taken steps in the past two years to reverse that, critics say the lack of attention to dams manifested itself during the Oct. 4 storms.

The dams that broke were earthen structures, some of which were maintained by loosely affiliated homeowners groups. Not all of the dams were inspected on a regular basis, and some of those that were still fell apart during the storm.

Dam safety experts say it is important to routinely inspect dams to protect people who live downstream from the structures.

State Rep. Jimmy Bales, who last month questioned the need for a budget increase for dams, asked whether more money to beef up the program would unduly burden rural property owners who he said don’t have much money to spend on their dams. Bales represents part of the Lower Richland community.

“People I represent in those areas can’t afford it and that concerns me a lot,’’ said Bales, D-Richland. “I hope that whatever monies we give, that the people doing the inspections will be considerate. We don’t want dangerous dams to rupture or flood out people downstream, but we do want to look after the people who own this property.’’

Bales also expressed reservations about the Lucas bill to tighten the law, saying “we need some common sense. You never want country people to have someone show up and say ‘I’m from the government, I came to help.’ That just doesn’t go over well. I work for these people. If I can’t keep them ... happy, I’ll have to look for another job.‘’

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