A renewed effort to bolster S.C. dam-safety law suffered a blow Tuesday when S.C. House members voted against advancing it.
While not fatal, the House panel’s 3-2 vote against GOP House Speaker Jay Lucas’ bill again highlights lawmakers’ year-long struggle to draft legislation that protects people, property and roads from dam breaches without saddling farmers and rural land owners with what they see as unreasonable costs.
“We still have a little bit to iron out on it,” said state Rep. Steve Moss, R-Cherokee, who chaired the panel. “I’m confident we’ll be able to come up with some type of legislation.”
The hand-wringing began when 51 state-regulated dams — many in the Midlands — burst during the historic October 2015 storm. The issue rose to the forefront again last fall when Hurricane Matthew broke another 25 S.C. dams, mostly in the state’s Pee Dee region.
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This year, Lucas proposed requiring S.C. dam owners to:
▪ Inspect their dams each year and submit a checklist explaining what they saw
▪ Register each year with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and when a dam changes ownership
▪ Annually give the state updated contact information for downstream residents and business owners who could be affected by a breach
Lucas’ bill, drafted from state Department of Health and Environmental Control recommendations, also would give the state power to regulate small dams that pose a risk to homes, businesses, roads and railroads.
Several farmers testified against the bill Tuesday. They said giving DHEC more regulatory power could cost them dearly. Some argued they should not be made to pay for expensive dam upgrades – possibly in the hundreds of thousands of dollars – just because a developer decides to build downstream.
House members repeated those concerns during the three-hour hearing.
They then stripped the bill of a provision allowing DHEC to regulate small dams that pose a risk to other dams and a requirement that dam owners notify downstream residents of a possible breach.
Dam owners instead would be required to contact DHEC and law enforcement, who then would contact those in danger.
“If something is getting ready to go bad, I can imagine a lot of pond owners are going to try to stop that from happening,” said state Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun, who proposed both changes. “They’re not going to be sitting there making phone calls to who knows how many people.”