Editorial: Corps of Engineers should release study of dam faults

What role did the breach of For Jackson’s Semmes Lake dam play in flooding in and around Columbia? And should the Army have been able to prevent it?
What role did the breach of For Jackson’s Semmes Lake dam play in flooding in and around Columbia? And should the Army have been able to prevent it? AP

THE UNITED STATES Army Corps of Engineers needs to stop hiding behind national security and provide Richland County residents details about Fort Jackson’s Semmes Lake dam, which broke during the October floods.

While terrorism is a concern for everyone, caution is not warranted in this case. Rather, it’s paramount that the U.S. Army, including the Corps of Engineers, provides as much information as possible so the public can understand why the dam broke and whether the break could have been prevented.

A story earlier this month by The State’s Sammy Fretwell raises questions about what happened with the dam. Mr. Fretwell reported that the dam was rated a “serious hazard” after a 2013 inspection. That’s the second-worst rating the Corps can give to a dam.

Any structure with that rating “is a dam that we feel could fail under normal working conditions,” a Corps official said.

The storm that struck South Carolina in early October certainly was not normal. Up to two feet of rain fell on some parts of the state, overwhelming more than 40 private dams in the Midlands as well as the Semmes Lake dam. The rain and dam failures led to massive flooding in many areas of the Midlands, damaging or destroying hundreds of homes and closing dozens of businesses for weeks. Some companies still haven’t reopened.

Residents of the King’s Grant neighborhood near Fort Jackson believe the Semmes Lake dam failure caused severe damage to some of their homes. The homeowners have threatened to sue.

Given the volume of rain and the number of other dams that failed, it’s difficult to determine the specific role that the failed Semmes Lake dam played in the widespread flooding downstream. But it’s logical to think the break deserves some blame.

Therefore, it’s appropriate to ask if the Army did everything it could to prevent the dam from breaking. Residents should be given the necessary information to determine that answer.

Late last year, Mr. Fretwell — under the federal Freedom of Information Act — requested records from the Army Corps of Engineers related to the Semmes Lake dam. The Corps responded by releasing some records but denying his request for others.

One of the documents released was an email sent on Oct. 15, less than two weeks after the dam broke. The email, sent from Corps dam official Shaun Stanton to other Corps officials, referenced the 2013 inspection. “I reviewed our report for Semmes and we did a very good job describing all of the deficiencies that may have led to the failure,” Stanton wrote.

The email also said: “There has already been talk of the public blaming Fort Jackson for the damages, in the millions.”

Although the Corps released the email, it denied access to the 2013 inspection report. Presumably, the report lists the deficiencies that Mr. Stanton says may have led to the failure.

Releasing the dam inspection reports “would give anyone seeking to cause harm the ability to deduce the effect of dam failure,” Corps lawyer Bill Woodard wrote to The State.

But nobody needs the inspection reports to “deduce the effect of dam failure.” The dam failed. The worst-case effect can be seen downstream.

Releasing the inspection reports would allow the public to ask if the flaws were repaired. If the answer is no, the next question is: Why not? And did the Army’s failure to act result in the dam breaking?

If the Army made all of the recommended repairs, then why did the dam break? Was the inspection flawed? Were the repairs shoddy? Should the Army reconsider how it builds, inspects and maintains dams? Should we be concerned about other Fort Jackson lakes?

The State has asked Fort Jackson for information about how the Army responded after the 2013 inspection. A fort official says he is waiting on a response from the federal Department of Justice.

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control has released hundreds of records regarding the private dams that broke in October. We don’t know if DHEC considered national security before releasing the records. If the agency did, it correctly concluded that the records won’t give terrorists any information they can’t gather by simply looking at the failed dams.

Similarly, we don’t believe that federal records pointing out flaws in a dam that no longer exists will give ISIS or al-Qaeda a blueprint for attacking the Midlands. But the records might give Richland County residents greater insight into the October flooding.

The Army Corps of Engineers should release them.