S.C. Gov. Haley says state’s dam safety program under scrutiny

A car float. in Gills Creek over Garners Ferry Road, Monday, October 5, 2015.
A car float. in Gills Creek over Garners Ferry Road, Monday, October 5, 2015. gmelendez@thestate.com

Gov. Nikki Haley said Wednesday that South Carolina is working to improve how the state oversees dams after historic rainfall this month led to a number of breaches, many on dams in the Columbia area.

“We are reconfiguring the way we do dams in South Carolina,” Haley told reporters. “Do we have enough engineers to monitor those dams? How are we going to go and maintain those dams going forward?”

The governor did not elaborate, but Department of Health and Environmental Control chief Catherine Heigel said “immediate action’’ plans to ensure “the integrity’’ of dams will follow the current inspections of all high hazard and significant hazard dams. Inspections of more than 600 dams are to be completed in the next two weeks.

DHEC will require some dams to be improved, agency spokeswoman Jennifer Read said Wednesday night. The agency might also seek to have lake levels lowered behind some dams, she said.

Wednesday’s remarks follow the failure of about three dozen earthen, community dams in South Carolina after sheets of rain pounded the state Oct. 4. Thousands of people suffered property damage and many fled their homes. More than 17 inches of rain fell in less than 24 hours in some areas of Columbia, making it the worst flooding many had ever encountered in South Carolina’s capital city.

Haley’s comments came a day after state regulators revealed they have retained a consulting firm to examine South Carolina’s dam safety program, which has one of the nation’s smallest budgets.

Since the Oct. 4 floods, the state’s commitment to dam safety has drawn criticism. The state has about 2,400 dams regulated by the state, but only a handful of inspectors to monitor them.

The DHEC-retained consulting firm, the HDR engineering company, will also examine the Gills Creek watershed and the scores of dams found there, DHEC regulator David Wilson said during Tuesday night’s meeting.

The number of dams that failed statewide has reached 36, Haley said. Almost half, 17, are in Richland County.