Politics & Government

SC legislators question dam-safety rules that regulators say could save lives

DHEC inspects dam safety in advance of Hurricane Irma

Lessons from 2015 flooding are evident in new dam safety procedures
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Lessons from 2015 flooding are evident in new dam safety procedures

One of the worst dam-safety programs in the country has made major improvements since a devastating 2015 flood that collapsed 51 state-regulated dams – but challenges still lie ahead, state regulators told lawmakers Thursday.

“The dam program is at a higher level than it has been in the past as far as being able to address the safety of regulated dams,” said David Wilson, acting director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. “We have new tools in place. We’ve got a better knowledge base, and we’re working directly with dam owners.”

But “there is still plenty of work to do,” the agency said in a report to the state Senate.

One of DHEC’s biggest concerns is whether the agency should bring tougher oversight to dams that, historically, have presented little hazard to property downstream if they broke or were never properly classified in the first place. The agency now says some aging dams might need to be reclassified, which would bring greater state oversight.

That idea didn’t go over well Thursday with a state Senate committee.

While legislators have approved more money to upgrade the dam-safety program, they have been reluctant to pass a stronger dam-safety law, citing property rights concerns.

The powerful S.C. Farm Bureau, which lobbies legislators, also opposes tighter regulation.

In some cases, lawmakers said it is not fair for a longtime landowner to face tighter rules just because a neighborhood has developed below a dam.

“That worries me that we would be putting that burden on someone who has been a good citizen and has had the appropriate pond and dam in the family for 100 years,” state Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, said, noting that pond owner would be “feeling the burden of the reclassification because of what someone else came in and did.”

Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens, said his grandfather built ponds years ago on family property. Now, Verdin said he worries about dam owners who “are working with you in good faith but might be facing very significant costs and never had a problem with their dam.”

DHEC officials said development that has occurred below dams is a national issue.

But if dams threaten human life downstream, they should be considered for tighter oversight, said DHEC officials, who have been reassessing dam classifications since the 2015 flood.

Supporters of tighter oversight point to development in parts of Columbia’s Gills Creek watershed as an example of growth that occurred after dams were built upstream.

“Our charge is to assure safety,” Wilson said, adding, regardless of how long an owner has had a dam, “responsibility for the dam lies with the dam owner.”

70+ dams failed in 2015, 2016

After historic flooding broke 51 S.C. dams more than two years ago, the Legislature sharply increased the amount of state money appropriated for dam safety.

In 2016, lawmakers approved $595,000 in added money. That money paid to double the number of workers in DHEC’s understaffed dam-safety program, which inspects and oversees dams.

Hurricane Matthew broke another 20 S.C. dams in 2016.

DHEC is not seeking more money for its dam-safety program in the state budget that starts July 1, Wilson said. The agency said the extra staffing and equipment it has received helped the department protect dams from failure as Hurricane Irma threatened the state last fall.

The agency now has inundation maps for all dams considered to be high or significant hazards to people and property downstream. Those maps help predict how a flood from a dam break would affect property below the structure.

The agency also has initiated an emergency alert system to help notify residents as storms approach that could threaten dams with heavy rain and higher water. The system reaches more than 5,000 people at once, DHEC said in its report to the Senate. The agency also has equipment that can help it rapidly assess the condition of dams during a storm, the department said.

Advocates of dam safety say the increases in state money were desperately needed. At one time, national rankings placed the state’s dam-safety program as one of the country’s worst.

In 2013, DHEC had fewer than three staff positions dedicated to the dam-safety program. Not enough dams were inspected and, when they were, dam owners didn’t always make repairs.

When the 2015 flood broke dozens of dams, causing millions of dollars in damages, the dam-safety program’s shortcomings were blamed as partially responsible.

That flooding crumbled about 45 regulated and unregulated dams in Richland and Lexington counties. Much of the damage occurred in Columbia’s Gills Creek watershed.

The added taxpayer money, approved by legislators after the 2015 flood, has allowed the dam-safety program to add workers, who totaled nearly 15 positions in 2017.

Legislators reluctant to act

Still, the Legislature has been reluctant to tighten South Carolina’s dam-safety law.

A bill approved by the House, now pending in the Senate, is a watered-down version of tighter dam-safety laws proposed in 2016.

At the time, lawmakers were considering increasing penalties for owners who violate dam-safety regulations and requiring owners to post bonds to pay to remove a dam if it poses a threat to people downstream. The current legislation would require stronger emergency management plans and make dam owners update contact information in case of an emergency.

SC’s dam dilemma

2,400: Number of regulated dams in the state. Many are nearing the end of their lifespan.

150+: Regulated dams that have issues that must be dealt with as a result of the 2015 flood or 2016’s Hurricane Matthew. Those issues range from needed repairs or maintenance, including clearing spillways, to simply assessing the dams to determine whether work is needed.

80%: Percentage of the dams in the state that are privately owned. DHEC is trying to develop an accurate data base of who owns all of the structures, most of which are earthen.

1,000: Potentially hazardous dams in the state that are not regulated by the state, according to one count