COLUMBIA, SC At least 10 dams that state inspectors examined for safety before Hurricane Matthew either broke or sustained major damage when the powerful storm blasted eastern South Carolina this month.
Inspections conducted in the past year identified erosion and holes in dams, improperly working water pipes, timber clogging spillways and dense vegetation on the earthen structures, according to state Department of Health and Environmental Control records.
But not all of the problems were resolved by the time Hurricane Matthew dumped a foot of rain on South Carolina’s Pee Dee region the weekend of Oct. 7, state regulators acknowledge. That left damaged and weakened dams to face pressure from rising creeks and high winds.
And when repairs were made, the required work did not prevent Matthew from damaging or breaking the eastern South Carolina dams, state records show.
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The DHEC inspections were conducted in an attempt to identify problems with dams after a historic 2015 flood raised public awareness about the need to keep dams in better shape. During the 2015 flood, more than 50 state-regulated dams burst, causing extensive property damage for downstream landowners, many in the Columbia area.
Those events prompted DHEC to send a team into the field to examine all high hazard and significant hazard dams across South Carolina to see if they were safe. Among those examined were 10 that recently suffered major problems in Hurricane Matthew. Some others sustained minor damage.
Department officials said this week they have worked extensively since the October 2015 flood to ensure that dams are repaired and upgraded. They’ve doubled department staff and received help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in an attempt to locate problem dams. They’re also working to tighten state dam safety laws.
Despite that, bringing everything up to standard can’t be done overnight, officials said.
“We recognize the urgency of needing to get the dams in as safe a condition as possible, and each action we are taking gets us closer to that,’’ DHEC’s David Wilson said. “And yes, it does take time to get things done.’’
Until recently, DHEC had one of the most poorly funded dam safety programs in the country. The state’s barebones program prevented inspections as often as agency officials say were needed — and the lack of oversight is blamed for contributing to the more than 50 dam failures during the 2015 flood.
The most recent hurricane broke another 25 dams, mostly in the Pee Dee region. Many of those dams were low hazard dams and were likely not inspected as part of DHEC’s review following the flood.
Mark Ogden, a project manager with the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, said resolving long-standing problems in a year may be too ambitious. It’s difficult, for instance, to improve dams quickly because private property owners can’t always afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the repairs, he said.
“While the state is making strides in trying to address these issues, this caught them before they had an opportunity to get things completed in terms of actually fixing dams,’’ Ogden said.
Even so, Columbia attorney Jones Andrews said DHEC could have done more in the Pee Dee to make sure dams were fixed after last year’s flood. Andrews is representing property owners in Columbia who say they were damaged by the failure of upstream dams in 2015.
“This is a function of government,’’ Andrews said. “Who else is going to police these people? This is an area where you need government.’’
According to DHEC records, five dams inspected for safety after the 2015 flood blew out during Hurricane Matthew, while another five sustained severe damage.
Broken dams included one at Lakewood Pond in Clarendon County and Flowers Pond in Dillon County. Agency officials said owners of the Lakewood dam — which failed in the 2015 flood — were making repairs. But the structure blew out again in the 2016 hurricane. The owners could not be reached Tuesday. Officials said Lakewood’s owners were in the final stages of repairs when the hurricane came through.
“We had issued a permit to repair it,’’ DHEC water bureau chief David Baize said. “But we had not received a request for final inspection.’’
The Flowers Pond dam is near S.C. 9 and at one point was threatening to affect the roadway west of North Myrtle Beach, DHEC officials said last week. The agency said the owners had complied with directions to resolve problems after the flood.
Two dams that did not break, but which required substantial efforts to save them, were at the Baxley 501 pond in Marion County and the Oakdale golf club lake in Florence County. Both were examined after the 2015 flood for problems.
The Oakdale dam had not been repaired following a critical inspection by DHEC after the 2015 flood, officials said. Inspectors found that the historic flood had eroded the dam’s spillway and affected parts of the earthen structure. They also noted that animals had been burrowing into the dam, which can weaken the structure and make it more susceptible to failure.
“We had been going back and forth with the owner,’’ Baize said of discussions with Oakdale about making repairs. “We had an inspection about the middle of the year. It was clear from that point that we were probably heading to a situation where we needed to go ahead and look at our enforcement process.’’
Baize said no enforcement order has been issued, but officials said the case is being reviewed. DHEC records show the dam is owned by The Palms Course at Oakdale LLC.
David Kullenberg, the course’s general manager, said the golf club had not done all the things DHEC wanted, but getting the work done properly hasn’t been easy. “We were trying to go through the correct channels .... so we can get help with the funding to fix the dam correctly, or the best way it can be fixed,’’ he said.
The Jeffords dam is another hurricane-damaged structure whose owners did not make repairs after DHEC inspectors noted problems following the 2015 flood, the agency said Tuesday.
In that case, agency officials found a spillway underwater and debris on top of the structure, agency spokeswoman Jennifer Read said in an email. A department report from April 2016 shows that the spillway was clogged with logs. The Jeffords case has been referred to enforcement, which could result in fines. Attempts to reach owners of the Jeffords dam were unsuccessful.
Another dam substantially damaged during Hurricane Matthew — at Ackerman Pond in Williamsburg County — was so overgrown with weeds and brush in 2015 that state officials gave it an unsatisfactory rating. They said the dense overgrowth on the dam kept them from being able to properly assess the structure for signs of problems, DHEC records show. Efforts to reach the dam’s owner were unsuccessful Tuesday.
“Most of this dam is inaccessible,’’ a December 2015 DHEC inspection report said. “A management plan must be developed to bring this dam back into compliance. This may take the involvement of a dam professional ..... so that the integrity of this dam is not compromised.’’
Aside from problems found in dams, DHEC looked at three dams after the 2015 flood and gave them good marks, according to agency records. Those were the Gaddy dam in Dillon County, the Pepsi dam in Florence County and the Graham Mill dam in Horry County.
Those dams breached when Matthew tore through the state this month. Wilson said that despite the state’s best efforts, it probably can’t ensure that aging dams will never fail.
“These are older, earthen dams,’’ Wilson said. “There is always going to be a chance that with the right rain event and the right amount of water, there is a possibility of failure.’’
Dams inspected after October 2015 flood that failed or were heavily damaged in October 2016 hurricane
Lakewood Pond, Clarendon County, breached
Flowers Pond, Dillon County, breached
Gaddy’s Mill Pond, Dillon County, breached
PepsiCola pond, Florence County, breached
Graham Mill Pond, Horry County, breached
Jeffords, Darlington County, damaged
Baxley 501, Marion County, damaged
Baxley Farm Pond, Marion County, damaged
Oakdale Lake, Florence County, damaged
Ackerman Pond, Williamsburg County, damaged