After more than 60 dams failed from two separate rain disasters the past 12 months, a state House panel is recommending that South Carolina regulators be given increased jurisdiction over smaller dams which could damage downstream infrastructure should they also fail.
The recommendation was among several discussed by a special House Dam Safety Committee on Wednesday. House Speaker Jay Lucas convened the panel after more than three dozen dams failed in record rainfalls and flooding last year. That number increased this month when 25 more breached as Hurricane Matthew passed along the state’s coast. Lucas has said he will consider the committee’s recommendations when prefiling new legislation for next year’s session.
Currently, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) has the authority to inspect or order repairs on dams that are at least 25 feet high or impound 50 acres of water or more. That authority is also extended to smaller dams if failure could cause a loss of life. DHEC legislative liaison David Wilson said the agency wants to expand its oversight by reclassifying structures where failure would affect infrastructure downstream as “high hazard.” DHEC also wants to remove the exception for dams with a road across the top.
“We just feel that those dams should not be exempt,” he told the committee on Wednesday.
A majority of committee members seemed to agree with the recommendation. “I think it should be a no-brainer for us to make this type of change,” State Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, said, noting the roads are usually publicly-owned.
South Carolina’s transportation department has struggled to rebuild roads that sat atop breached dams. While the agency has right-of-way for the road, it does not control the dam itself and must rely on its owner to either rebuild or abandon the structure before it can replace the roadway.
“That kind of leaves us with very little leverage to push that dam owner to a decision,” Chief Engineer for Operations Andy Leaphart said.
But other members of the panel were hesitant to put new regulations in place against dams that were built decades ago. State Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Woodruff, considered it unfair to require a dam owner to pay for upgrades because of new development downstream that did not exist when the dam was first built.
“This person who built this dam according to regulations at the time, they jumped through all the hoops, they did everything they were supposed to do,” he said. “Now the rules have changed.”
The proposal would also require all dam owners, even unregulated ones, to register with DHEC so the agency would be able to track down the owner should the structure fail.
One area where legislators did not agree with DHEC was a proposal that would require owners hire engineers for inspections every five to ten years on “high hazard” and “significant hazard” dams. Opponents considered the extra cost too much of a burden, as Wilson noted inspections can cost $2,000 or more in some cases.
The committee did not rule out potentially using DHEC inspectors to meet the requirement instead, but wanted to get more information about fees or funding the agency would need to make that happen.