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Outcry to provide records of failed dam grows in South Carolina

The Semmes Lake dam at Fort Jackson blew out Oct. 4, two years after Army dam inspectors rated it as a serious hazard.
The Semmes Lake dam at Fort Jackson blew out Oct. 4, two years after Army dam inspectors rated it as a serious hazard.

Open government advocates on Thursday joined Sen. Lindsey Graham in calling for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release records of a dam that failed on Fort Jackson during a major storm last fall.

Adam Marshall, an attorney with the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press in Washington, called it “incredibly unfortunate’’ that the Corps has refused requests for the information. Releasing the records is in the public interest, he said.

Fort Jackson is upstream from hundreds of homes and businesses, many of which flooded the same day the fort’s Semmes Lake dam broke. Some neighbors question whether the Semmes Lake failure contributed to rising waters that flooded their homes during the Oct. 4 storm. King’s Grant, a gated community next to the fort, and commercial areas along lower Devine Street sustained flood damage that day.

“This is precisely the type of information that needs to be discussed and debated and analyzed, so the public can figure out what went wrong, if anything, so that fixes can be made in the future,’’ Marshall said. “These are not documents needed for some abstract academic purpose. This has to do with people’s futures.’’

Corps officials have said releasing the records could compromise security, allowing terrorists or criminals to use the information to help them determine whether to attack a dam. The Corps turned down a Freedom of Information Act request by The State newspaper for inspection reports of dams on the fort. The newspaper is appealing the decision to the Corps.

Columbia lawyer Jay Bender, a state Press Association attorney who also represents The State newspaper, said it’s hard to understand why the Corps would not provide the dam inspection records — particularly for the failed Semmes Lake dam.

“The dam is gone,’’ Bender said. “What is the problem with releasing information about it?’’

Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is one of the military’s biggest supporters, this week wrote the Corps’ commander in Washington, requesting the records’ release. Graham said the documents could help clear up questions about the performance of the Semmes Lake dam.

Emails the Corps did release to the newspaper show the 75-year-old dam was considered a “serious hazard,’’ one of the worst ratings that can be given to a dam. But without the inspection reports, it’s unknown what the problems were and what Fort Jackson was told to do to address the problems. The Fort has not responded to questions about what steps it took to address deficiencies in the 2013 inspection report.

A Corps spokesman said Thursday the agency is reviewing the request by Graham to release maintenance records, but the review is not complete.

Both Marshall and Bender said the military’s hesitancy to provide the information follows changes in federal law after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. Those changes limited public access to some records of infrastructure, such as dams, that the government deemed vulnerable to terrorism.

In its response to the newspaper’s request for information, the Corps cited two sections of federal law that the agency says allows it to keep the information secret. Those sections relate to terrorist threats or potential compromises of security for infrastructure.

Marshall said one of those sections is a relatively new exemption, approved by Congress in 2012, that has had limited court challenges. Bender said the Corps might have legal grounds to deny some of the records — but it isn’t right.

Bender noted the Corps’ argument is weakened by the fact that state regulators in South Carolina have released dam inspection records for private dams they regulate. Those dams are in neighborhoods, where homeowners groups maintain the dams.

“Maybe the Corps is suggesting that security is better in those neighborhoods than at Fort Jackson,’’ Bender said. “I think it is just the instinct of the Corps to keep the public out of its business.’’

Pete Strom, a former U.S. Attorney who is representing homeowners against the fort, said it appears the military is trying to “cover something up’’ by keeping the records secret.

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