Legislators are vowing to still find a path forward after a state House agriculture subcommittee on Tuesday rejected an attempt to revamp South Carolina’s dam laws.
The 3-2 vote came amid concerns by those on the panel that the requirements placed on dam owners would be too much of a burden. The vote came after several property owners complained in the hearing about the potentially expensive impact and their frustrations in dealing with inspectors.
“I take owning this dam seriously, but there’s not an endless supply of money,” said Danny Lepard, who owns part of a dam in Edgefield County. “And it’s hard to meet regulations and rules if you don’t understand what they’re asking you to do.”
Lepard said he received a notice not long after the October 2015 “1,000-year floods” from the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) informing him that his dam was in need of repairs. But he said the notice was not specific about the necessary repairs and that the agency was not responsive when he contacted them. Lepard said an engineer he hired could not determine what shortcoming the agency’s inspectors found.
“I’m not an engineer, but I’m not stupid either,” he said. “And I’m not going to be bulldozed and run over.”
Legislators have tried to reform the state’s dam inspection and maintenance regulations after more than 60 dams failed following record rainfall in the past two years. The bill debated Tuesday would have given DHEC increased jurisdiction over smaller dams which could damage downstream infrastructure should they also fail. DHEC already 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.
But legislators wrestled with what they considered a potentially unfair impact on dam owners if new development occurred downstream years after they had already built the dam. The dam owners who testified Tuesday had issues with that section. “It’s a little bit of sour taste in my mouth if somebody else does something that I’m not associated with, but yet it kicks me into a $60,000 to $100,000 modification to my reservoir,” Lexington farmer Charles Wingard told the panel.
However, State Rep. Roger Kirby, D-Florence, questioned what would be the alternative if South Carolina is serious about protecting property downstream. “We know we can’t tell them they can’t develop,” he said. “But, at the same time, you (dam owners) are automatically put into that situation if your dam is responsible for a loss of life.”
DHEC liaison David Wilson said the agency is working on maps that show the downstream impact zones for regulated dams, so owners and developers will have a better idea of potential impact should the dam fail.
The 3-2 vote did not fall along partisan lines (2 GOP and 1 Democratic legislators opposed, while 1 Republican and 1 Democrat supported), but it was an unusual committee-level setback for House Speaker Jay Lucas. The Speaker sponsored the bill and has previously said dam safety legislation is among his top priorities this session.
But committee members said the vote was only a delay, not a rejection. “Significant progress was made on the bill (Tuesday),” State Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews tweeted. “Subcommittee working hard to give bill best chance of passage before sending to floor.” Ott was the critical swing vote that halted the legislation Tuesday.
Besides expanding the types of dams that fall under DHEC jurisdiction, the proposed bill also requires dam owners update their emergency contact information and submit an annual checklist each year. Full House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chair Davey Hiott, R-Pickens, said the registration requirement was included because DHEC had trouble tracking down dam owners after the 2015 storm breached dozens of structures and caused others to fail completely.