Ensure safety of earthen dams (copy)

Hunter Baker surveys flood damage to his neighborhood in Florence in 2015. Despite dam failures that caused catastrophic flooding in 2015, 2017 and 2018, the SC Legislature has done nothing to strengthen the state's dam-safety law. File/AP/Gerry Broome

Four years ago, about 50 S.C. dams failed during torrential rains, wiping out homes and businesses downstream, killing drivers caught unaware and triggering South Carolina’s worst flooding in modern history. A year later, Hurricane Matthew took out 20 more regulated dams. Two years after that — last year — a dozen regulated dams fell to Hurricane Florence, and catastrophic flooding crippled much of the Pee Dee; some of those dams were long overdue for state-mandated repairs.

Yet even with that catastrophic recent history, the Department of Health and Environmental Control could only send out a news release Sunday “highly encouraging” dam owners and operators to “consider lowering their water levels” in order to “provide additional storage for the anticipated rainfall” as Hurricane Dorian approached the S.C. coast. The agency also asked dam owners to “please call” any downstream dam owners to let them know what they were doing.

If that sounds tepid, it’s because the S.C. General Assembly won’t allow the agency to order dam owners to do much of anything.

Lawmakers responded to the 2015 floods by giving DHEC a larger staff to enforce our anemic dam-safety law, and the agency is much more committed to enforcing that law than it had been. But the Legislature won’t even require dam owners to visually inspect their own dams every year … or let regulators know if they sell their dams … or provide their contact information to state officials.

And don’t even think about requiring dam owners to post bonds to cover the cost of emergency repairs, because owners say it would be burdensome to expect them to prevent their dams from breaching, destroying property downstream and killing anyone who happened to be in the path of the rushing water.

And if some legislators had their way, regulators would have even less power to protect all of us who don’t own dams that convert relatively harmless creeks and streams into large and potentially deadly bodies of water from those few who do.

This past session, a Senate committee approved legislation to deregulate 1,600 “low-hazard” dams. The legislation would have required dam owners to give DHEC their phone numbers and email addresses, complete a dam safety checklist and notify emergency officials if they have “reason to believe that the dam or reservoir is near failure or has failed.”

Take a moment to digest the fact that none of that is required now.

But S.107 also would have allowed DHEC to exempt owners from completing a dam safety checklist if that would “impose a significant financial hardship on the owner.” And it promised some dam owners a refundable tax credit for repairing their dams.

In other words, it required the rest of us to subsidize repairs made by the people who benefit from the dams that endanger us.

Fortunately, opponents managed to stall that legislation. We hope South Carolina will be similarly fortunate this week, and that Dorian will not wipe out more dams. If we are, it will be a welcomed exception from what happened in 2015. And 2017. And 2018.

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And from what will continue to happen until our Legislature becomes more concerned about the vast majority of South Carolinians who live in harm’s way than the tiny minority who own and operate potentially deadly public nuisances.

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