South Carolina

SC dam-safety law changes proposed after historic flood

Pine Tree Lake dam in Richland County failed during the historic rain storm in October. The dam is not regulated by South Carolina but could fall under state oversight if a new law is passed.
Pine Tree Lake dam in Richland County failed during the historic rain storm in October. The dam is not regulated by South Carolina but could fall under state oversight if a new law is passed.

South Carolina would regulate more dams, inspect dams in highly populated areas more frequently and stiffen penalties for violations under a bill filed Thursday by the leader of the S.C. House.

Dam safety became a top issue in South Carolina after a historic October rain storm knocked out 32 state-regulated dams and dozens of other dams not under government oversight. More than half the dams were in Richland and Lexington counties, many near residential areas where homes were flooded after more than a foot of rain drenched the region.

S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, introduced the bill on the final day lawmakers can pre-file legislation before the legislative session starts Jan. 12.

Some proposals in the bill mimic suggestions from dam-safety experts who spoke to The State last week about shortcomings in South Carolina’s laws and regulations.

“Last October’s historic flood devastated our state in large part because local dams were not receiving the proper attention or maintenance necessary to keep families safe,” said Caroline Delleney, a spokeswoman for Lucas. “Speaker Lucas has been working with DHEC Secretary Catherine Heigel to ensure that the appropriate regulations are in place to prevent this type of destruction from occurring again.”

Lucas’ bill, if passed, would:

▪  Put more smaller dams under state oversight, if their failure would damage highways, railroads, homes, businesses, utility services or other dams downstream.

Burst unregulated dams contributed to the estimated $7 million in road repair costs in Lexington County and the failure of two regulated dams in the Lower Richland area of Richland County.

DHEC officials did not know how many additional dams the agency would regulate if the law passes. DHEC regulates 2,370 dams. The state has 10,000 to 20,000 unregulated dams, the agency estimates.

▪  Require dam owners each year to file registration forms, submit inspection and maintenance plans, and test emergency plans used to notify regulators, authorities and residents downstream if a dam is about to fail.

▪  Add into state law schedules for DHEC to visually inspect dams. The inspections are part of unwritten agency policies now.

The bill also would increase inspections of 176 dams in the most heavily populated areas to every year from every two years.

▪  Mandate more detailed inspections of 652 dams in highly populated areas every five years and dams in less populated areas every 10 years.

▪  Require dam owners to prove they can pay to remove the dam if needed to avoid property damage or endanger lives. Owners would need to show proof of a bond or line of credit.

▪  Increase fines for violations from between $100 and $500 a day to between $500 and $25,000 a day, and add possible prison time of up to two years.

DHEC officials did not know how much money or staff the agency would need if the law passes.

The agency requested an additional $595,000 in state money for its dam-safety program next year, doubling the size of its staff of seven. If approved, the dam-safety program would be about as large as it has been during the past 20 years.

For years, the program’s budget hovered around $200,000 or less. The state’s funding for dam safety ranked 45th in the nation in 2013, according to a survey by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

DHEC has said the current budget is about $470,000.

DHEC Bureau of Water Chief David Wilson said the state has a good dam-safety program, but the proposed changes in Lucas’ bill could help South Carolina meet more standards set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

In a 2013 survey that asked states how well they follow model dam-safety programs, South Carolina answered “no” on more than 70 questions in which most other states said “yes.”

“This will help ensure that the state has a very good and robust dam-safety program,” Wilson said.