Politics & Government

SC panel OKs 2 proposals to toughen dam-safety law

Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Matthew broke 25 more S.C. dams, an S.C. House panel agreed Wednesday on legislation that would tighten the state’s dam-safety law.

The panel will suggest that S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, file a bill in December to give state regulators oversight over more dams and, also, require dam owners to register with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

“The people of South Carolina can see the damage that, within a matter of hours, can be brought to this state,” said Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens, the committee’s chairman. “It’s our responsibility as legislators to provide for safety for the public and that includes dam safety.”

However, lawmakers rejected DHEC’s request that the Legislature require owners of dams that pose high or significant hazards to hire professional engineers to inspect those structures every five to 10 years.

Legislators also set aside for now a proposal to levy fees against the state’s dam owners to help pay for DHEC’s dam-safety program, saying they need to know more about how that would work.

Lucas, who formed the committee, will consider the panel’s suggestions before prefiling a dam-safety bill ahead of the legislative session that starts in January. He could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

The state’s dam-safety program has come under fire since historic October 2015 flooding that broke 51 state-regulated dams, including 45 in the Columbia area. That flood caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

A bill filed last December to give the dam-safety program more teeth failed when the legislative session ended in June. Lawmakers feared rural landowners would be unduly burdened by one-size-fits-all legislation.

However, lawmakers did vote to more than double DHEC’s dam-safety budget to $1 million, allowing it to double its full-time employees to 14.

A month ago, some members of the dam-safety committee expressed skepticism about whether more changes were needed to the state’s dam-safety law.

Then, Hurricane Matthew hit in early October, breaking 25 more dams and prompting DHEC to order 136 dam owners to either lower water levels or hire engineers to assess their structures’ safety.

“We’re learning every year,” Rep. Steve Moss, R-Cherokee, said Wednesday. “We just hope the lessons don’t continue into next October.”

In the upcoming session, lawmakers likely will grapple with how tight any new regulations should be and who – dam owners, downstream residents and businesses, or state taxpayers – should pay to keep private dams safe.

That remained a point of contention Wednesday.

For example, the committee bristled at the thought of requiring some dam owners to pay professional engineers for periodic inspections. DHEC already checks high-hazard dams every two years and significant-hazard dams every three years.

Hiring an outside professional would cost dam owners about $2,000, DHEC’s David Wilson said. Lawmakers dismissed the additional inspections as redundant and costly before scratching the idea.

However, the panel was receptive to DHEC’s request that owners of regulated dams provide the agency with correct contact information, take a look at their dams each year and report their findings to the state.

“The department does need to at least know who owns the dams because (dam) classifications change,” said Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun.

The panel also suggested giving the agency control over “very small” dams that pose a risk to roads and utilities, and over all dams that have county or state roads on top of them.

Wilson compared DHEC’s proposals to seat belts or air bags in a car – safety features that mitigate problems that cannot be totally prevented.

“We have a lot of old earthen dams in the state of South Carolina,” Wilson said. “Many of those dams have gone beyond their design life, if they had a design life to start with. We’re going to always have some problems, but it’s our goal … to try to limit those.”

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks

Fee for S.C. dam owners?

In January, lawmakers could consider charging owners of the state’s 2,400 regulated dams a fee to subsidize DHEC’s dam-safety program.

Rep. Roger Kirby, D-Florence, proposed the idea Wednesday as an “easy tradeoff” to the agency’s proposal that dam owners pay thousands of dollars for outside engineers to conduct periodic inspections.

A $150-a-dam annual fee could generate $360,000 a year, Kirby said. That money then could help pay for the agency’s $1 million-a-year dam-safety budget or be added to it.

Citing a lack of understanding as to how the fee would work, an S.C. House panel Wednesday chose not to include it in a list of suggestions sent to S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas. Lucas plans to file a dam-safety bill in the upcoming legislative session.