Politics & Government

SC senators move to weaken dam safety laws in a state where dams break every year

Hurricane Florence exposes more problems with SC dams

During Hurricane Florence, 11 dams broke in eastern South Carolina's Pee Dee region but that number could increase as more study is conducted.
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During Hurricane Florence, 11 dams broke in eastern South Carolina's Pee Dee region but that number could increase as more study is conducted.

A plan to weaken South Carolina’s much-criticized dam safety law sailed through a key Senate committee Thursday after legislators said they were worried about hurting property owners who are responsible for maintaining aging dams across the state..

Under pressure from the farm lobby to loosen the law, the committee voted to remove many of the state’s 2,400 regulated dams from state oversight — even though scores of dams break every year during big storms and flooding. The bill now goes to the full Senate floor. Sens. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, Scott Talley, R-Spartanburg, and Ronnie Sabb, D-Williamsburg, voted against the change in law.

As many as 1,600 dams would be de-regulated and no longer overseen by state dam safety inspectors, according to legislation backed by Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley. An amendment offered Thursday by Campbell would reduce that number somewhat, but not substantially.

Senators wanting to drop many dams from state regulation say the state should focus on the most dangerous dams and forget about overseeing those that aren’t a threat to hurt anyone if they break. Some lawmakers are concerned that low-hazard dams, those that would cause minimal property damage if they failed, could be reclassified to higher hazard dams if development occurs downstream. Farmers need to be protected, Campbell said.

“We do need to take care of these farmers,’’ Campbell said.

But critics say some dams classified as presenting low or significant hazards either threaten downstream property now or they will do so as South Carolina grows. In light of recent floods and storms, the state doesn’t need to stop regulating dams, they say.

Since a historic flood swamped Columbia and eastern South Carolina in 2015, the state has had 87 dam failures during storms that have hit the state each year. At least a dozen failures occurred during Hurricane Florence last fall.

Of the 87 dam failures since the 2015 flood, 55 percent have been low hazard dams, according to statistics compiled for Harpootlian. Four low-hazard dam failures during Hurricane Florence in 2018 affected public roads, the statistics show.

“Just because it is classified as low hazard doesn’t mean it is not going to have impacts downstream,’’ Harpootlian, a freshman senator, said. He noted that many dams that failed in the 2015 flood in Columbia wrecked property downstream.

“I’m a newcomer to the committee..... but I’m not a newcomer to the tragedy and disaster we had in Columbia when a series of dams failed.’’

The dams in question are mostly earthen structures, regulated by the state, that hold back ponds or lakes in neighborhoods, on farmland, on golf courses and in other places. Major dams, such as those at Lake Murray, are regulated by the federal government.

For years, South Carolina had one of the nation’s weakest dam safety programs. After the October 2015 flood, legislators pumped money into the Department of Health and Environmental Control, dramatically increasing staffing to inspect and oversee dams.

But the Legislature has not tightened the state’s law, which critics say doesn’t have enough teeth.

The existing law, for instance, allows South Carolina to regulate dams of 25 feet or more if they pose a risk to human life, but not if they are a risk to downstream property, according to the conservation group American Rivers. A bill shot down by the Legislature after the 2015 flood would have increased inspections in heavily populated areas, toughened penalties and required dam owners to post bonds to remove the dams if they became unsafe.

The Conservation Voters of South Carolina, which represents a coalition of environmental groups, said this year’s effort to roll back dam safety protections is “tone-deaf and ridiculous in light of the catastrophic dam failures over the last 4 years.’’

“The Senate should be talking about how to better protect citizens from failing dams,’’ a statement from Conservation Voters director John Tynan said. “Instead, they’re looking to put more of us at risk with this dangerous rollback of public safety protections.

Even so, the S.C. Farm Bureau wants the law loosened, arguing that rural landowners are being unduly burdened by state regulation.

The bureau, one of the most influential lobbying organizations in Columbia, says people could be saddled with substantial expense if new development occurs downstream and they have to make improvements to their dams. The Farm Bureau spent $143,563 to lobby the Legislature in 2017.

Since 2015, DHEC has reclassified 158 dams and is looking at 770 others for possible reclassification, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The bill, amended Thursday, says DHEC can’t require changes, or upgrades to a dam, if the agency reclassifies a dam to a higher hazard category, unless the dam is a threat to kill people if it fails. The amended bill says significant hazard farm dams must remain under DHEC oversight. It also adds a $50,000 tax credit people can get for repairing their dams. And it says that DHEC’s inspection schedule must focus on the most hazardous dams first.

In South Carolina, dams are classified in three categories: high hazard, significant hazard and low hazard. High hazard dams are those that could result in deaths if they broke, while significant hazard dams are those that would cause substantial property damage if they broke. Low hazard dams provide lower property damage threats.

Harpootlian and Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, questioned why the state would provide a hefty tax credit to private dam owners.

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