Nearly four years after a massive flood overtopped and broke dozens of dams across South Carolina, state lawmakers are considering changes that would remove about two-thirds of the state's dams from many safety requirements.
Supporters of the bill said South Carolina has done plenty since those 2015 floods by hiring new dam inspectors and increasing their budget from $200,000 to $1 million a year. So instead of spreading attention to all 2,400 state-regulated dams across South Carolina, inspectors can instead concentrate on the 800 dams that are the highest threat to lives.
But opponents of the proposal said the floods, which killed 19 people — 10 of them driving in cars on roads where creeks swollen by dam breaks swept over — showed how vulnerable and poorly written South Carolina's dam regulations are and that relaxing them would be a mistake.
The Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee voted Thursday to send the proposal to the Senate floor, where several senators promised to push for significant changes.
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The bill doesn't deal with large dams, like the ones that create Lake Murray or Lake Wateree. They are federally regulated. Instead, it deals with dams under the authority of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. Many of them were built decades ago by farmers who wanted a pond for irrigation or to fish in or by neighborhoods for aesthetic value.
But South Carolina has grown up around them, and dams that if they broke decades ago would have just flooded a field of crops can now flood a recently built subdivision.
More dams have broken from flooding in Hurricanes Matthew and Florence since the October 2015 floods, when as much as 2 feet (61 centimeters) of rain fell in areas from Columbia to Charleston in barely over a day.
Four of the dams the broke in Hurricane Florence were classified as low hazard and wouldn't need inspections under the proposal, But they sent water over public roads, where people could have been driving and their lives threatened, said Democratic state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, whose Columbia district saw some of the worst flooding in 2015.
"Just because it is classified as low hazard doesn't mean it is not going to have impacts downstream," Harpootlian said.
Supporters of the bill worry farmers and others will have to pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair dams that aren't a threat.
For the dams that do need repairs and are a danger to lives, the proposal also offers a $50,000 tax break to owners to fix the structures. Several senators questioned whether the state should pay the entire bill or require the owners to shoulder some costs.
There were also discussions about whether developers who build subdivisions downstream from dams that were built decades before should have some responsibility for repairs.
Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Paul Campbell urged senators on the committee to approve the bill, even if they had reservations. The Charleston Republican said time is running out with the session ending in May and the full Senate could debate it and make changes.
"What we are doing here doesn't have to be the final dam bill," Campbell said.
"Was that an adjective or a noun?" Republican Sen. Chip Campsen of the Isle of Palms asked.