Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Why we need a new dam law (it’s not the reason you think)

Flood waters ravaged Columbia in October after a deluge and dam breaks.
Flood waters ravaged Columbia in October after a deluge and dam breaks. Matt Walsh

GRANTED, I WAS out of the country when Hurricane Hermine unleashed her wrath on South Carolina, so I can’t speak from firsthand experience of the destruction she wrought.

But I know what I read, and what friends tell me, and I know how completely recovered from the storm the Midlands and the rest of South Carolina seemed to be when I returned less than a week later. So I was more than a little puzzled by The Associated Press headline last week: “Some SC lawmakers say Hermine showed dam rules not needed.”

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Some SC lawmakers say Hermine showed dam rules not needed

SC lawmakers remain skeptical about toughening dam-safety law

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Really? A weakened former hurricane waddles across our state, dams do not collapse under the weight of its six inches of rainfall — about a third as much as fell in the October deluge — and our lawmakers declare themselves done with post-flood, lessons-learned dam regulations? Just like that?

Because of course we’re never going to see more than six inches of rain at a time again. Right?

Perhaps I’m being too sarcastic, so let me grant a few more points:

Granted, there are some less-than-clear and rational minds in any profession, and we should not judge the entire profession by the ridiculous rantings of a few.

Granted, when we’re defending a position we know is difficult to defend, we sometimes grasp at straws, and say things that don’t make a lot of sense.

Granted even that critics might be right when they say we would have done fine in the October deluge if we had been enforcing the dam rules we already have. That it might not have been our lack of adequate regulations but rather our lack of inspectors, and the timidity of those inspectors we did have, that made the circumstances ripe for 45 dams to break in the Columbia area alone.

But of course that misses a big part of the point. The idea behind a new law isn’t just making it tougher.

It’s about making it clear to state regulators that they ought to actually enforce state law, rather than winking at violations, as they had done with many of the dams that failed. No, we shouldn’t need to pass a law to do that, but sometimes we do, and refusing to make that a little clearer sends just the opposite message.

It’s also about reallocating responsibility.

If we’re going to actually inspect dams as often as we say we’re going to inspect them, who should pay for those additional inspections? All of us, or the people who own and benefit from the dams?

Consider: If I’m a builder, it’s my responsibility to pay for the inspections that ensure the public my work is safe. If I’m a doctor or a barber, an architect or a therapist, it’s my responsibility to pay for the licensing program that ensures the public I’m qualified to do my job. If I own a swimming pool, it’s my responsibility to keep children from jumping into it and drowning. If I own a chemical business, it’s my responsibility to make sure the chemicals are stored properly so they don’t cause an explosion that destroys not just my business but the entire neighborhood.

If I own a dam, shouldn’t it be my responsibility to keep an eye on it to make sure it’s not likely to breach and destroy homes downstream?

Or at least shouldn’t I be partially responsible for that, rather than having everyone else pick up the cost of something that benefits me and endangers the rest of you?

Making dam owners pay for some of the inspections is the most significant new expense being proposed. They’re already required to upgrade substandard dams; DHEC just hasn’t been particularly aggressive about enforcing that law.

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How SC could improve dam safety rules after flood

State’s penny-pinching ways crippled dam safety program

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If I own a dam, shouldn’t I have to tell you, my downstream neighbors, when that dam breaches? Or when it’s likely to breach, or when I’m making repairs? Shouldn’t I have an emergency plan in place (who to call when there’s a break, for instance), and shouldn’t I have to test it occasionally to make sure I still have the right phone numbers and email addresses? Shouldn’t my contact information be on file with state regulators, and shouldn’t I have to let them know if I sell the dam?

Shouldn’t it be clear in state law that the dam is my responsibility?

Yes, all of that would mean a little more paperwork, but it seems very little to ask for people whose property benefits them but poses a danger to the rest of us.

Critics could be right when they suggest that we shouldn’t treat someone who built an agricultural dam that became hazardous because neighbors sold their land for subdivisions the same as someone who built a dam in order to create a lake that would make the houses in his new subdivision more desirable. So maybe the law should acknowledge that.

Writing that difference into law might be difficult, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on reallocating responsibility, and sending a clear message to regulators.

It means we need to figure out how to define the purpose of the dams and the benefit their owners derive from them and the risk the owners created when they built the dams, and then include those factors in our allocation of responsibility.

And then we need to start enforcing our law.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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