State officials in charge of inspecting dams on waterways across South Carolina have ordered three owners in Chester County to immediately fix issues with their dams.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control issued the “emergency” orders for repairs on Monday, following the recent inspections of at least 625 dams on lakes, rivers, and streams statewide. By late afternoon Tuesday, DHEC had issued emergency repair or maintenance orders for 75 dams in South Carolina.
DHEC deployed field teams to check for compliance across the state after heavy rains and historic flooding earlier this month overwhelmed multiple dams, resulting in breaches and failures. Officials have said 14 people were killed in flood-related incidents, and have estimated at least $1 billion in damage.
In Chester County – where rain fell for days but no significant property damage or injuries were reported – DHEC’s records show none of the dams cited in need of repairs poses an immediate threat to public safety or surrounding property.
Inspectors flagged a maintenance issue with the dam spillway located in Chester State Park, a 525-acre park in rural Chester County, just south of city limits. The park’s dam creates a 160-acre lake by storing water flowing from two creeks in a reservoir. The lake is used for boating and fishing.
Two other privately maintained dams in Chester County – one on Three Mile Branch and another on the Sandy River near Hopps Road – also were pegged this week in need of repairs, according to DHEC records.
The Evergreen Timberland Co. Dam is located on Three Mile Branch, a stream near Chester State Park. The Loblolly Timber Dam impounds a tributary of the Sandy River just north of the city of Chester.
One Chester County man told The Herald on Tuesday he was erroneously listed as the Evergreen Timberland dam owner. And now, after the man talked with DHEC officials this week, it’s unclear whether the dam was actually cited for problems during inspection.
Wylie Frederick said he was contacted about an inspection uncovering issues at the Evergreen Timberland dam, but he told DHEC officials that he and several other residents own property where a dam sits on Mirror Lake – not on Three Mile Branch. Frederick said late Tuesday he and other landowners are waiting to hear back from DHEC officials about their neighborhood dam and whether there were problems during the inspection.
The owners of those dams cited in Chester County have been ordered to lower water levels immediately to assess issues and must notify DHEC of their actions by 5 p.m. Thursday, according to the emergency orders. The Herald could not reach the owners of Evergreen Timberland Co. Dam or the Loblolly Timber Dam on Tuesday.
Inspectors are assessing every private or public dam in South Carolina classified as a class one or class two – meaning those sites where a dam failure could result in deaths or damage to infrastructure – as well as any dam that would have significant negative impact on an area if there were a failure, said Cassie Harris, a DHEC spokeswoman.
Assessors are looking for issues such as overtopping, structural damage, signs of erosion, seepage, potential weak points, debris blocking the dam’s functions, or overgrowth, Harris said.
Noncompliance with DHEC’s orders can result in misdemeanor criminal charges and fines up $500 per day until the dam is fixed.
DHEC records show no dams in York and Lancaster counties have been cited as having problems this month. It’s unclear whether inspections have been done in those counties yet.
Park dam spillway already on repair list
At Chester State Park, workers soon will begin lowering the lake water level to inspect and start repairs on the spillway, said Duane Parrish, director of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. The state’s parks department has staff engineers who can assess the dam and spillway and coordinate repairs.
A spillway keeps water from flowing over a dam during periods of heavy rain or high water levels. Park officials said the Chester State Park dam spillway needs maintenance but is not malfunctioning, nor does it pose a safety issue.
Parrish said his department has not yet received a detailed inspection report from DHEC. But, he said, park officials already were aware of a minor issue with the spillway and were planning to make repairs prior to the DHEC order.
The emergency order calls for the lake water level to be lowered or the reservoir emptied this week. A detailed inspection by a professional engineer is required by Nov. 2. Regulations require the state parks department and other dam owners to gain DHEC approvals for any plans for construction or repairs.
DHEC inspectors have regularly checked the Chester State Park dam and other South Carolina public parks dams, Parrish said. Full-time employees, he said, also routinely check the dams.
$750,000+ estimated flood damage in S.C. parks
During the worst of the flooding in the state’s Midlands this month, inspectors checked daily the dam on the Sesquicentennial State Park lake in Columbia. There were no breaches or holes or other issues, Parrish said. But the storms and heavy rains did move some boardwalks around on the lake and the weather caused other damage in state-run parks.
A road to the campgrounds at Santee State Park near Interstates 20 and 95 was washed out, Parrish said, and those camping facilities will be shut for a couple of months for repairs. Detours are in place around a washed-out bridge leading to the park.
So far, the state PRT department has estimated about $750,000 worth of damage caused by flooding. That figure doesn’t include potential costs for repairing beach erosion on the South Carolina coast, Parrish said.
For example, the state plans millions of dollars worth of beach re-nourishing and repairs on Hunting Island in Beaufort County. Parrish said prior to the flooding this month, the department knew of costly beach erosion problems on Hunting Island and the further damage “has just sped up” plans.
Noncompliance could bring fines
In South Carolina, owners or operators – which are sometimes private citizens or businesses – are responsible for the structural integrity of dams, Harris said. DHEC inspectors scheduled assessments for dams across the state every two or three years, depending on the classification of the dam.
If dam owners do not comply with the agency’s emergency order, Harris said, DHEC will contract and pay for the necessary repairs and bill the owner. In some cases, a person may be charged criminally with a misdemeanor offense and fined up to $500 per day until corrective action is taken, she said.
DHEC also has the authority to levy fines up to $1,000 for violating orders.
It is the dam owners’ responsibility, Harris said, of notifying residents or businesses downstream if there’s a problem with the dam or if water is being drained to allow for repairs.
This month’s rains caused an “unprecedented 1,000-year flooding event,” she said, adding that the immediate statewide review of dams is an ongoing large-scale effort unlike any DHEC has performed before. The agency also has partnered with HDR Engineering, Harris said, to review DHEC’s dam safety program, as well as staffing and technology needs.