Responding to scores of dam failures the past two years, the South Carolina House on Wednesday approved legislation that expands those types of dams that can be inspected by the state and also put new requirements on dam owners.
The measure easily cleared the House in a 104-3 vote. Another planned vote Thursday would send it over to the Senate. The proposal increases the number of dams that would be regulated as “significant hazards” by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). Currently, dams must be at least 25 feet high or impound 50 acre-feet worth of water to be regulated. The law also covers smaller dams if failure could cause a loss of life downstream. Under changes approved Wednesday, that exception would also expand to cover those smaller dams where failure would cause infrastructure damage downstream.
“(The House Agriculture Committee) felt we also needed to make sure that those types of dams were being regulated by DHEC and were being maintained the proper way,” State Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, said on the House floor.
DHEC classifies those structures where failure could cause loss of life as “high hazard,” while those where failure could cause downstream structure or road damage as “significant hazard.” Owners of the roughly 630 private dams that fall into these categories would be required to register with the state and submit an emergency action plan each year. DHEC said it would need an additional $169,000 each year so it could do regular inspections of the dams.
State Rep. Davey Hiott, R-Pickens, said those requirements are scaled back from the original idea for dam owners to do their own inspections and notify downstream residents of a potential failure. The bill would instead require the owner notify emergency personnel, who would then contact downstream residents.
“That saves the upstream property owner who’s done everything that was asked of him when he built his dam,” Hiott said. “It saves him from having to immediately go in there and spend tens of thousands of dollars (for third-party inspections).”
But a few opponents like State Rep. Jonathan Hill, R-Townville, said it puts further regulations on property owners for an unlikely event. “You’re putting more hassle on the farmers and property owners in order to make DHEC’s job easier,” Hill said. “Remember this was a thousand-year flood scenario that we had. This is not something that we’re going to have happen again tomorrow, next year, or probably even in our lifetimes.”
The House also approved separate legislation that would give property owners a two-month deadline to come up with a repair plan if their dam’s failure destroyed a road in the October 2015 floods. The state Department of Transportation said 26 roads were closed after the floods due to damage, but the agency still has not received a plan from owners for 21 of them. The agency has said it cannot move forward with repairs until it knows whether the owner plans to rebuild or demolish the dam. The legislation also clarifies that any future scenarios will give the property owner a year to determine their course of action.