DHEC wants to beef up dam safety program in wake of October floods

Gills Creek Watershed Association director Erich Miarka surveys the broken dam at Cary Lake in the Columbia area. State regulators want more money to inspect dams
Gills Creek Watershed Association director Erich Miarka surveys the broken dam at Cary Lake in the Columbia area. State regulators want more money to inspect dams SAMMY FRETWELL/THE STATE

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control wants to bolster its beleaguered dam safety program with more money and more staff following floods last month that reignited concerns about the program’s effectiveness.

In its budget request for next year, DHEC is asking to roughly double the size of its dam safety staff as part of an overall program increase of $595,000.

If approved, the dam safety program would be as large, if not larger, than it has been during the past 20 years. The proposal includes hiring six full-time engineers and an environmental health manager, spokeswoman Jennifer Read said in an email. She said the agency now has 6.75 dam safety employees.

DHEC is charged with inspecting and overseeing 2,370 dams across the state. But in recent years, inspectors haven’t always examined the dams as frequently as needed because the dam safety program is so small. Without inspections and oversight, the state doesn’t always know about shaky dams that threaten property downstream.

Read said the plan to increase staffing would bring the program up to “existing statutory and regulatory requirements.’’

But the agency also is working with Gov. Nikki Haley and lawmakers on legislation to further strengthen the dam safety program with more money. That money could come from general appropriations, inspection fees or both, Read’s email said.

Read did not provide details of the plan. But state Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said some of the legislative changes under discussion include providing more clarity on the responsibilities of those who own dams and how they are to maintain the structures. The majority of dams in South Carolina are privately owned, many by homeowners groups that DHEC director Catherine Heigel says are not always well organized.

“We have learned some hard lessons from this recent flooding,’’ said Smith, who chairs the budget subcommittee that will hear DHEC’s request for more money. “It’s incumbent upon us to make sure we have appropriate enforcement and inspection mechanisms as it relates to dams. We see the catastrophic damage that (failed dams) can do to the surrounding area.’’

DHEC’s dam program has in recent years ranked as one of the most poorly funded in the country, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. For years, the program’s budget hovered around $200,000 or less, although DHEC says the budget is currently about $469,000.

The State newspaper chronicled many of the problems with the dam safety program in a 2011 story. The spotlight again focused on the program last month, when about three dozen dams broke across South Carolina following a massive rainfall. Those broken dams included at least six in the Gills Creek watershed of Columbia, home to more than 100,000 people. The October flood damaged homes, destroyed cars, washed out intersections and sent many people fleeing for higher ground.

Cary Chamblee, who formerly oversaw the dam safety program for the S.C. Land Resources Commission, said he’s encouraged that DHEC wants to bring its program up to standard. But he said he’d like to know if the new jobs will be dedicated full-time to dam safety. Land Resources ran the program until dam safety was transferred to DHEC in the mid-1990s by the Legislature. At DHEC, some dam safety employees have had other duties.

Despite questions about the adequacy of South Carolina’s program, state Rep. Jimmy Bales said he has reservations about increasing the budget. Bales said he has received complaints from some Lower Richland dam owners about zealous enforcement by DHEC since the storm. He serves with Smith on the legislative subcommittee that will review DHEC’s budget request.

“The committee is going to be sort of diligent,’’ Bales, D-Richland, said. “We’re not going to turn (DHEC) loose with a bunch of people that don’t know what they are doing and demand all this stuff. If we don’t give them a whole bunch of money, they can’t do this.’’

Still, if DHEC had employed more inspectors in the recent past, South Carolina might have been able to prevent some of the failures of dams that occurred during the October storm, said Mark Ogden, the project manager with the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

“The fact they had not kept up with their inspection schedule and other things, it’s pretty clear they needed additional staff,’’ Ogden said Wednesday.

“It’s difficult to say without knowing the particulars, but based on the reports, it seems that there were probably dams that failed that should not have failed given the circumstances,’’ he said. “If those dams had been properly inspected and had follow-ups to make sure they got repaired, they could have weathered this storm.’’

The request for the budget year that starts July 1 notes that DHEC will need to reclassify some dams that are now considered low hazard to significant or high hazard dams because of their proximity to populated areas.

DHEC’s request is part of a range of proposed budget increases that would offset budget cuts the agency suffered about seven years ago, as the state’s economy flagged. An upcoming budget hearing will also cover whether DHEC needs more money for regulators to oversee mines, as well as hog and chicken farms. The agency says the extra money is needed.