SC Lawmakers Discuss Tougher Dam Safety Rules

COLUMBIA, S.C.  – The state agency that regulates South Carolina dams wants some new rules after 50 dams failed during record rainfall last October. But some state House members studying the issue question whether new regulations are needed.

A special House committee on dam safety met for the first time Thursday. Lawmakers heard from David Wilson, with the Department of Health and Environmental Control, which regulates dams.

“We had 76 dams that we issued emergency orders to, another 175 dams that we issued repair directives to,” he told the committee. “I’m pleased to say that, by far, the majority of those dams are on a path forward of being addressed from a safety standpoint.”

He says all but 10 of the 76 dams are moving ahead with resolving their concerns, but three dams are likely to require state action, which means the state would likely breach the dams to prevent flooding.

DHEC is asking lawmakers to make three changes to current dam safety regulations:

  1. Require dam owners to confirm their correct contact information every year, and provide a completed checklist of dam maintenance evaluation items performed by the owner. Owners of dams considered “high hazard” or “significant hazard” would also have to provide an updated Emergency Action Plan with current contact information for businesses and people downstream.
  1. Allow DHEC to regulate small dams if their failure would pose a risk to infrastructure downstream. Right now, DHEC regulates small dams only if their failure poses a risk of loss of life.
  1.    Require dam owners to hire a professional engineer to assess dam condition and hazard potential every 5 years for high hazard dams and every 10 years for significant hazard dams.

But Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, asked, “If we dedicate the funding to the department at an adequate level do we truly need a major shift or a major change in law to be able to keep people safe, while at the same time balancing and understanding the needs of property owners?”

He says too much regulation would be a burden on some dam owners who inherited land or became owners of dams unintentionally. “If you put a program on me that I can’t afford to pay for, well then what’s my other option? And then the option, I don’t know of any other option but to breach the dam and do away with the pond and do away with the dam. Well that costs a lot of money too,” he told his fellow House members.

The legislature and governor did give DHEC a budget increase this year of $661,000, which the agency used to hire seven new full-time employees for its dam safety program. That doubles the staff that oversees dams.

Several lawmakers say the fact that there weren’t any problems with dams during Tropical Storm Hermine shows that the dam safety program expansion is working and new state laws may not be necessary.

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