Hurricane Florence exposes more problems with SC dams
The state Legislature is moving to weaken substantially South Carolina’s dam-safety law, despite four years of intense storms that have destroyed dams across the state.
Legislation now before the state Senate would remove more than 1,600 of the state’s 2,400 regulated dams from government oversight, including some dams considered significant hazards to downstream property.
Dam-safety advocates decried the plan during a hearing Wednesday. Hurricanes and floods have caused about 80 S.C. dams to break since 2015, evidence the state should keep intact its existing dam-safety law, at the very least, critics told a Senate subcommittee.
“The last thing we need to do right now is to put out a piece of ... legislation that exempts classes of dams from regulation’’ said Gerrit Jobsis, a senior regional official with the national conservation group American Rivers. “Our response should not be to weaken our dam law. Our response should be to strengthen that.’’
Two similar bills, drafted after discussions between senators and the influential S.C. Farm Bureau, are moving swiftly through the Legislature. The Farm Bureau has expressed concern about over-regulation of farm ponds.
Lawmakers tried to vote on the proposed legislation Wednesday before all of its critics had been allowed to speak, including Jobsis. Ultimately, a Senate subcommittee approved both bills.
Historically, South Carolina has had one of the country’s weakest dam-safety programs. After a 2015 flood caused dozens of dams to fail, legislators put more money into the state’s budget for additional dam inspectors.
But they have not toughened the state’s dam-safety law, as critics have urged. South Carolina is experiencing more intense storms as a result of the earth’s changing climate, those critics note, adding the storms are putting additional pressure on dams, including many local lakes now surrounded by homes.
During the past four years, South Carolina has seen one of the worst floods in its history and three hurricanes.
The latest storm, Hurricane Florence in 2018, flooded much of eastern South Carolina, putting parts of Conway and some Pee Dee communities under water. About a dozen dams failed during Florence, including one that flooded U.S. 501 in eastern South Carolina.
Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said nobody wants to face the hazards of failing dams, referring to the historic 2015 flood that caused about 50 S.C. dams to collapse. Among the areas affected by failing dams was Columbia’s heavily populated Gills Creek watershed.
Stangler and state Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley, engaged in a brief, tense discussion about the proposed legislation after Wednesday’s meeting.
After legislators failed to tighten the dam-safety law last year, they promised to discuss any new legislation with various interest groups before it was introduced this year, Stangler said.
“You did this in coordination with the Farm Bureau, rather than the stakeholder group that we were told we could have,’’ Stangler told Campbell.
Stangler and Jobsis were particularly critical of a section of the proposed law that would exempt from state oversight some dams, used in farming, that pose significant hazards. Failure of those dams could damage property downstream.
Senate subcommittee members, however, said the bills need to be considered. The proposal focuses on removing lower hazard dams from state oversight so the state Department of Health and Environmental Control can focus on the dangers posed by high-hazard dams, said Sen. Campbell, a sponsor of the legislation.
High-hazard dams — those where a breach could result in deaths — would remain under state regulation, according to plans.
“What we’re trying to do is get DHEC to concentrate on the high-hazard dams,’’ Campbell said. “They’ve got 400 of those dams left to work on. (Trying) to work on 2,000 dams makes it very difficult.’’
Campbell and state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, voted for the legislation. State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, expressed concerns about the proposal but left the meeting before the vote.
The bill now goes to the full Senate Agriculture Committee for consideration.
The Farm Bureau, one of the most powerful special interest groups in South Carolina, has expressed concern that tightening the state’s dam-safety law would hurt farmers who depend on rural ponds that don’t threaten property downstream. It also has concerns about dams that, while originally built in rural areas, now are upstream from developed neighborhoods.
The Farm Bureau spent $143,563 to lobby the Legislature in 2017, the most recent year available.
Cassidy Evans, one of the Farm Burea’s lobbyists, said the bill looks “specifically at how to help our dam owners.’’
The panel’s move to loosen dam regulation came on the same day that it voted for a plan to buy out homeowners whose property is at high risk of flooding. The plan would establish a loan program so that local and state governments, as well as nonprofit groups, could buy flood-prone homes and remove them. The land on which the homes sat would remain vacant.