U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham called Wednesday for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release records of a 75-year-old dam that blew out last fall on Fort Jackson as a major storm socked the Columbia area.
The Corps has refused to release the records, arguing that terrorists or criminals could use the information against the public.
But Graham, one of the military’s biggest boosters in Congress, said in a letter to the Corps that making the information public could clear up questions about whether the Army properly maintained the Semmes Lake dam.
The 22-foot-high earthen dam crumbled Oct. 4. Numerous homes and businesses near the base flooded that same day, raising questions about whether the Semmes Lake failure contributed to the problem.
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“In order to remove any further speculation, I ask that you release all maintenance records, along with any additional pertinent information associated with the Semmes Lake dam to the public,” Graham, R-S.C., said in his letter to Corps commanding general Thomas P. Bostic.
Graham’s letter, released after 6 p.m. Wednesday, said the failure to release the records has prevented a “thorough accounting’’ of deficiencies in the dam.
Corps emails obtained by The State newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act show that, in 2013, inspectors had rated the dam as a “serious hazard,’’ one of the worst ratings that can be given. The newspaper reported on these problems Jan. 10.
The Corps, however, denied the newspaper’s request for inspection reports, which would provide more detail about deficiencies noted in the emails. The Corps says the records should remain secret for security reasons. Fort Jackson also has not said whether it fixed problems cited by inspectors in 2013. In contrast to the Corps, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has released records of dams it regulates in Columbia neighborhoods and other parts of South Carolina.
“I have serious concerns with the Corps’ decision not to release the maintenance records of the dam to the public,’’ Graham’s letter said. “The decision to withhold these records has fueled speculation that the Army did not heed the concerns of the Corps and did not take the necessary corrective measures to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the dam.’’
The State contacted the Corps’ Vicksburg, Miss., office this week to determine whether the agency would reconsider its decision to deny access to the records. Agency attorney Bill Woodard said the newspaper would have to formally challenge the decision with an appeal.
Late last year, Woodard denied access to the full inspection reports. “Terrorists or criminals could use that information to determine whether attacking a dam would be worthwhile,’’ Woodard said in a letter to The State.
Property owners in King’s Grant, a gated neighborhood next to the base, are considering whether to sue the fort. Property owners have said they suspect that a rapid rush of water the morning of Oct. 4 came from the Semmes Lake dam failure. That morning, water spilled over the banks of Wildcat Creek, which flows out of Semmes Lake, and flooded homes along the stream.
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.