The Buzz

State must inspect dams more often, regulator says

High-hazard dams that could cost South Carolinians their lives if they break should be inspected every year, the head of the state agency that regulates those dams told legislators Wednesday.

"We need to lay eyes on those C1 dams every year," said Catherine Heigel, director of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

C1 dams are high-hazard dams, usually found in populated areas, where a failure could lead to the loss of lives.

Heigel also said the state needs to re-evaluate whether some dams — now thought to be less dangerous — should be reclassified as more dangerous, high-hazard dams.

Currently, state regulations call for C1 dams to be inspected every two years, Heigel told a panel of House members tasked with deciding how to pay for damage caused by last month’s historic flooding.

Seven C1 dams failed in Lexington and Richland counties early last month. In three cases, the failed dam’s inspection was from eight months to more than two years overdue, according to S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control records.

DHEC head Heigel said her agency is the appropriate one to regulate dams, adding the agency has the right skills to do the job but not enough staffing.

That agency now proposes to bolster its beleaguered dam-safety program, adding money to hire more staff after last month’s floods reignited concerns about the inspection program’s effectiveness.

In its budget request for next year, DHEC asks to roughly double the size of its dam-safety staff.

If approved, that program would be as large, if not larger, than it has been during the past 20 years. The proposal includes hiring six full-time engineers and an environmental health manager. The agency now has 6.75 dam-safety employees.

State Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, whose budget subcommittee will hear first DHEC’s request for more money, said the dam-inspection program will have to be beefed up.

“We’ve learned some very hard lessons from this latest storm,” Smith said. “The more inspections that we have, probably the better off we are —as long as they don’t become a burden (to) owners of the dam.”

‘Out in the middle of nowhere’

DHEC is charged with inspecting and overseeing 2,370 dams across the state. But, in recent years, inspectors haven’t always examined the dams as frequently as required. Without those inspections, the state doesn’t always know about shaky dams that threaten property downstream.

DHEC is working with legislative staff to propose legislation that would improve the existing dam-safety program and make clear a dam owner’s responsibilities, Heigel said.

For example, owners of high-hazard dams could be required to provide the state with an annual assessment of their dams, she said. The state also could require dam owners provide it with regular engineering reports about their dams, Heigel said.

Some dams also might need to be reclassified as more dangerous, moving them into C1 status, Heigel said.

Populations have grown around many S.C. lakes since their dams were first built, Heigel said. “In fact, most of these were out in the middle of nowhere at the time.”

In addition, many of the dams that failed were built before the state started regulating dams and were not built to today’s design standards, she said. Some did not include spill ways or the ability to lower lake levels, she said.

How high new design standards should be remains to be seen, said state Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, a civil engineer.

Roads, bridges and dams all are designed to withstand certain use. If an event exceeds those design limitations, the infrastructure will fail, he said.

Should dams be built to handle “Noah’s flood?” Bingham asked, rhetorically.

Raising design standards could result in construction costs doubling, tripling or quadrupling to protect against a rare event that never might happen, he said.

‘I don’t sleep well’

More than a month after the flooding, Heigel said her agency still is responding to calls about the safety of some dams.

For instance, forecasts predict at least 2 inches of rain could fall in the Upstate by late Thursday.

“Every time I hear that kind of rain projection, I don’t sleep well,” Heigel said.

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

Flood’s impact on S.C. agriculture

S.C. agriculture was hit hard during last month’s historic flooding, officials told a S.C. House panel Wednesday. A look at the losses:

$375.9 million in crop damage, including peanuts, cotton, soybeans, vegetables and fruit that was ruined in soaked fields

$587 million in total losses, including lost wages and lost crops