Inspectors noted ‘serious hazard’ at Fort Jackson dam before it failed

The Semmes Lake dam at Fort Jackson blew out during heavy rains in October
The Semmes Lake dam at Fort Jackson blew out during heavy rains in October

Two years before a flood swamped neighborhoods and commercial areas near Fort Jackson, federal inspectors found substantial problems at the base’s Semmes Lake dam, an aging structure that crumbled during the massive October storm.

A 2013 inspection noted deficiencies in the dam and rated the 22-foot high structure as a “serious hazard,’’ according to records released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A serious hazard rating is one of the worst grades the Corps can give after inspecting a dam to make sure it is stable and safe, records provided to The State newspaper show.

Fort Jackson did not respond to questions last week about whether it attempted to make repairs to the Semmes Lake dam. The fort was awaiting answers from the U.S. Department of Justice, a base official said Saturday.

But one Corps of Engineers dam expert said deficiencies cited in the 2013 inspection may have caused the dam to fail during the storm that rocked Columbia three months ago.

“I reviewed our report for Semmes and we did a very good job of describing all of the deficiencies that may have led to the failure,'' according to an Oct. 15 email from Corps dam official Shaun Stanton to other Corps officials.

Records released by the Corps provide more details about the possible cause of flooding near the military training base Oct. 4. That day, sheets of rain pelted Columbia for hours, swelling creeks, soaking neighborhoods, flooding streets and causing many people to flee to higher ground. More than a foot of rain fell.

Among the areas that flooded were major intersections, businesses and neighborhoods downstream from Fort Jackson.

Property owners in King’s Grant, a gated neighborhood next to the base, have hired lawyers in an attempt to obtain compensation from the fort. Upset property owners say they suspect the Semmes Lake dam failure caused the rapid rush of water that flooded homes along Wildcat Creek, which runs out of the lake and into their community.

The Army could be liable for millions of dollars in damages if it is determined that the Semmes Lake dam failure contributed to flooding off the base – and federal officials know it.

“There has already been talk of the public blaming Fort Jackson for the damages, in the millions,’’ Stanton's Oct. 15 email said.

At this point, it is unknown specifically what problems the Corps found in its 2013 inspection at the Semmes Lake dam. The Corps of Engineers refused The State newspaper’s request to examine inspection reports for the Semmes Lake structure and other dams on the base.

The agency’s Vicksburg, Miss., office provided some correspondence in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, but it said releasing dam inspection reports might help terrorists. It cited an exemption in federal law that allows the Corps to withhold documents if the release could endanger anyone’s life.

Releasing inspection reports “would give anyone seeking to cause harm the ability to deduce the effect of dam failure,’’ Corps lawyer Bill Woodard’s letter to The State said. “Terrorists or criminals could use that information to determine whether attacking a dam would be worthwhile.’’

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he wants to know more about dam failures at Fort Jackson – and why the Corps won’t release the records. Graham labeled the Corps’ refusal to release the records “an inappropriate decision.’’

Thousands of homes and businesses are near Fort Jackson in South Carolina’s largest city.

“I want to hear what the Army says,’’ Graham said. “ But my bias is to say that there is no national security compromise in talking about a dam. Why did the dam break? The people in South Carolina who live by the base need to be reassured it is not going to happen again. I don’t buy what the Army is saying. It makes no sense.’’

In addition to the Semmes Lake dam failure, more than 40 private dams failed in the Columbia area during the storm. Unlike the base, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control has provided inspection records for the dams it regulates.

Although the Corps would not release inspection reports, other documents released by the agency, or which are on federal websites, show the Semmes Lake dam has a history of repair needs.

Federal records show that the earthen dam needed attention as far back as 1981. In the mid-1990s, inspectors cited erosion and a sinkhole in the dam, a 1995 Department of the Army report says.

Some of the 1990s deficiencies later were fixed, according to the report. But the 75-year-old dam continued to need maintenance and, in 2006, was scheduled for repairs, records show. By 2013, inspectors again noted problems, according to two emails from Corps officials in October.

The Oct. 15 email from Stanton, a dam inspection program manager with the Corps’ Vicksburg, Miss., division, said the 970-foot-long dam ranked as a “serious hazard, which is our second to worst rating.’’ In an Oct. 16 email, Corps structures laboratory director William Grogan also noted that the dam was a serious hazard.

Stanton, in an interview with The State newspaper last week, said deficiencies cited in the 2013 report were notable. A dam with a serious hazard designation “is a dam that we feel could fail under normal working conditions,’’ Stanton told the newspaper.

Jones Andrews, a Columbia lawyer representing property owners whose homes were damaged in the flood, called the email referring to the hazardous condition of the dam “extremely concerning’’ given the number of people who live around Fort Jackson.

The Semmes Lake dam is one of four on Fort Jackson that either failed or sustained damage during the Oct. 4 storm, officials at the fort said a month after the flood.

Fort Jackson officials have said the Army is conducting an investigation to determine the exact cause of the failure. They were unsure in November whether the dam, which held back water for a recreational lake, would be rebuilt.

Grogan’s email noted that Fort Jackson did not seek help from the Vicksburg division of the Corps in trying to determine why the dam had failed. The Vicksburg division inspects Army dams, but in this case, Stanton said another section of the Corps is looking into the cause of the Semmes Lake dam failure. The status of the investigation was unknown last week.

Staff writer Andrew Shain contributed to this story.