Penny-Pinching Cripples Dam Safety in South Carolina

by | June 20, 2016

By Sammy Fretwell

Tree limbs, broken medical equipment, crumbling walls and ankle-deep muck greeted Nori Warren the day she walked into her storm-battered veterinary clinic after the worst flood Columbia had experienced in decades.

Upstream dams had broken, adding millions of gallons of water to the already rain-choked Gills Creek system. Warren's business, Four Paws Animal Clinic, sustained about $600,000 in flood damage that her insurance won't cover.

Today, as Warren seeks financing to build a new clinic, she says a stronger state dam safety program could have protected her business from the damage it suffered in October.

"In hindsight, they could have done more,'' Warren said of S.C. regulators.

"What is it that we can put in place to make them do more? There certainly are a lot of questions.''

State officials have taken steps since the flood to improve dam safety. But, after years of inattention, those efforts still fall short.

The Legislature approved $595,000 in added money to double the size of the dam safety program's staff in the state's new budget, which takes effect July 1.

State environmental chief Catherine Heigel says that only will bring the program back to a basic level of service. But the added money won't pay for annual inspections of all high-hazard S.C. dams.

Heigel, director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said South Carolina also must consider strengthening its dam safety law -- a measure that would allow the agency to do more than the basics.

"We have the opportunity to improve in a lot of places in the agency, but this is one that is squarely before us because of the experience that we had last fall,'' Heigel said. "That is what that legislation was reflective of -- that real serious look at what do we need to do to be truly effective.''

Legislation, introduced earlier this year, called for more frequent inspections of dams in heavily populated areas, increasing penalties for dam owners who don't obey state laws, and requiring high-hazard dam owners to post bonds that would pay to remove the structures if their embankments became dangerous.

But legislators in the S.C. House killed the plan, citing concerns that dam owners could not afford to make improvements if inspectors looked at the structures more frequently and demanded fixes. Farmers also complained they might be unfairly burdened, even though the legislation did not focus on rural farm ponds.

Some lawmakers blamed the dam failures last fall on rainfall so unusual and heavy that it rarely would be seen again.

"Our concern was that we not have a wave of regulations and additional costs going back to our property owners all of a sudden because of this event that occurred,'' state Rep. Stephen Moss, R-Cherokee, said at a February meeting in which lawmakers shot down the proposal.

"Our concern was that we not have a wave of regulations and additional costs going back to our property owners all of a sudden because of this event that occurred.''

State Rep. Stephen Moss, R-Cherokee, last February, opposing a proposal to toughen South Carolina's dam safety law

Tightening the law would cost another $770,000, above and beyond the $595,000 increase approved by the Legislature for DHEC next year. Had the law been strengthened, DHEC would have a total of 19 dam safety staff members in a program that recently had only one.

Heigel said her agency will "be back'' to argue the case for tougher dam safety laws next year if "there is an appetite'' by any lawmaker to sponsor new legislation.

Gov. Nikki Haley's office acknowledged the added money in the state budget that takes effect July 1 may be only a start of what is needed.

"The FY 2016-17 (governor's) budget fully funded the department's request for 7 dam safety professionals, but the governor understands that the department may need to request additional resources in the future,'' Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said in an email to The State newspaper.

Ignoring dams

For years, South Carolina's dam safety program, administered by the Department of Health and Environmental Control, operated on paltry budgets.

In 2005, the state's $200,000 expenditure on the program was among the eight lowest amounts spent nationally, according to the national Association of State Dam Safety Officials. By 2007, funding for employees to run the program had dipped to $121,609, according to DHEC. Even after the economy began to revive in 2010, DHEC spent only $144,570 on the program, DHEC statistics show

That frugality cost the state dearly during last fall's flood, many now say.

During those lean years, state inspectors were unable to examine many hazardous dams as often as necessary. They failed to regulate some potentially dangerous dams and they rarely issued fines against dam owners for violations of S.C. law, records show.

State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, said top state policy makers were so focused on trying to cut costs and lower taxes that they hurt vital government services, including dam safety.

"The key (question) is: 'Is the government doing its job?' '' Sheheen said. "That means maintaining dams. The bad things that happened in Richland County weren't as a result of acts of God. They were problems that were exacerbated by acts of man.''

Statewide, 48 state-regulated dams failed during the October storm. Many more unregulated dams also crumbled.

Sheheen blames Gov. Haley and former Gov. Mark Sanford for creating a mindset that discouraged some agencies from seeking money to bolster programs.

"This destruction of state government has had real and lasting consequences,'' said Democrat Sheheen said, who ran against Republican Haley in 2010 and 2014.

Haley's office says Sheheen considers "attacking the governor to be his job.''

But the governor also blamed DHEC -- an agency she controls -- for the lack of dam safety funding. The agency didn't make it clear that its dam safety office was in dire need of more money, Haley's office said.

"The governor's executive budget relies on requests from agencies about what their most pressing needs are, and the department had not, in previous years, expressed the degree of concern about the operations of the dam safety program that would elevate it to the level of receiving additional appropriations,'' Haley spokeswoman Adams said in an email to The State newspaper.

After last October's flooding, Haley supported a $595,000 increase in the dam safety program's budget, requested by DHEC. The Legislature approved the money as part of the new state budget. The extra money will roughly double the dam safety budget to more than $1 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Former dam safety director Steve Bradley said he tried to persuade top DHEC officials long ago to push for more money but was unsuccessful.

In 2006, the agency abandoned plans to inspect dams each year because of budget constraints, department records show. In 2005, DHEC inspected 59 high-hazard dams. The next year, it inspected only 40 high-hazard dams.

To inspect dams, the agency was relying heavily on staffers who also inspected wastewater plants, drinking water systems and other activities, Bradley said.

"The district inspectors were tied down, had a lot of other jobs to do, and limited time to spend on dams,'' Bradley said. "All the district personnel doing inspections didn't make up one full-time employee.''

The agency also did not bring potentially dangerous dams under its authority because it lacked money, he said. South Carolina has about 2,400 dams regulated by DHEC, but at least 10,000 more do not fall under government oversight. Bradley estimates at least 1,000 unregulated dams need some type of state oversight.

Aside from those issues, records show DHEC's enforcement of dam safety laws has been spotty.

From 1994, when DHEC took charge of the dam safety program, through September 2015, the agency made only 12 enforcement cases against dam owners, according to records reviewed last year by The State newspaper.

A grim tale

Warren, the daughter of a country doctor from Great Falls, said she knows the firsthand effects of broken dams.

After the flood, nearly 10 feet of water filled her animal clinic. The water remained for three days inside the 1950s-era structure on Gills Creek, she said.

The surging water wrecked the building that the 53-year-old Warren and several fellow veterinarians have used since 2009. They now are working out of a temporary building near Five Points.

Warren said she expects to spend more than $1 million to rebuild the structure.

Insurance only covered about $400,000 of that loss. Her practice is borrowing money from a bank to pay for the rest and is working with contractors to construct a new, elevated building on the same spot.

Warren doesn't single out a specific dam for criticism. But, she added, "The degree of flooding we suffered was directly related to the dam breaks.''

Over the three-day period in which flood waters filled her clinic, at least four dams directly upstream from Warren's office failed. Other dams farther up in the watershed also failed.

On Oct. 4, the Cary Lake dam broke, according to a timeline by the Gills Creek Watershed Association. Sometime that day an unregulated dam at Pine Tree Lake, which lies above Cary Lake, also failed, according to the timeline.

The next day, the Upper Rockyford Lake dam failed, federal records show.

The Lower Rockyford Lake dam failed Oct. 6, according to a federal report.

Lawsuits by some of Warren's neighbors say dam breaks -- at Cary, Upper Rockyford and an unidentified lake -- let a torrent of water rush downstream and cause massive property damage to homes and businesses in the Gills Creek watershed.

Columbia lawyer Pete Strom, who is handling the cases, identified the unregulated dam as the broken structure at Pine Tree Lake.

Representatives of Cary Lake and Upper Rockyford Lake dispute the claims that those dam failures caused any problems downstream. Property owners say they did their best to maintain the dams. Any losses suffered downstream "were not due or caused by any negligence,'' according to a response defending Cary Lake Homeowners Association.

But attorney Strom said DHEC shares responsibility with upstream dam owners for millions of dollars in damage to property.

"If DHEC would have been on top of this and these dams were all properly maintained, that number would be much smaller,'' Strom said.

Warren, who favors improving the state dam safety effort, said she'll press ahead with her recovery plan.

But she said it is hard to forget the legacy of broken dams -- and the state's lack of oversight.

"I went through the entire emotional gamut,'' she said. "I was confused, disoriented, mad, angry, emotional and distraught.''

Findings

-- After last October's flood, regulators asked for an added $595,000 for the state's dam safety program. Gov. Nikki Haley signed off, and legislators OK'd the money. However, the added money still won't be enough to pay for annual inspections of the state's high-hazard dams.

-- Barely four months after October's flood, legislators rejected toughening the state's dam safety law, saying, in part, they were concerned that dam owners could not afford to make improvements if officials inspected the structures more frequently and ordered fixes.

-- Tightening the law would cost another $770,000, above and beyond the $595,000 increase approved by legislators this year.

(c)2016 The State (Columbia, S.C.)