Homeowners faced with big bills to fix dams deemed unsafe

October 26, 2015 GMT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — People who live around dozens of lakes in South Carolina are under emergency orders to repair or replace dams that ruptured or were deemed unsafe by inspectors after the historic rains this month, and they face staggering bills ranging from thousands of dollars to perhaps millions.

Those legally responsible for the dams — mainly homeowner associations and individual families — don’t have a lot to time to develop their plans and face potential fines if they don’t comply. They also don’t have any certainty about how to pay for the projects. Privately owned dams generally aren’t eligible for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and they’re unlikely to be covered by private insurance. How much all of it will cost is still unknown.

“That’s the magic question,” said Laban Chappell, co-owner of a 40-acre lake in Lexington that emptied when the lake’s dam failed Oct. 4.

Chappell owns an old mill that has been converted into shops and restaurants near the lake. He’s been told it will take no less than a million dollars to repair the dam, depending on the design. For now, he’s too busy trying to get flooded businesses back up and running to think about how or whether to rebuild the dam.

He is among dam owners under an Oct. 30 deadline to hire an engineer and figure it out. The directive comes from the Department of Health and Environmental Control, the agency responsible for inspecting the dams but one that has been historically understaffed and underfunded, and in some cases never inspected dams before they breached.

Across the state, 75 dams are under emergency repair orders — 28 of them in hard-hit Richland County, where floodwaters busted through or spilled over a series of earthen dams built decades ago along Gills Creek, which runs through the capital city area of Columbia. An engineer’s detailed inspection, as well as repair or replacement plans, must be submitted by month’s end to the state environmental agency.

If owners don’t comply with those orders, the agency “will hire a contractor to go in and take necessary action to protect public safety” and send the owners a bill, agency head Catherine Heigel told The Associated Press. That’s in addition to a $1,000 fine. Owners could also face penalties of up to $500 daily.

As of Monday, 11 dam owners had yet to respond.

The orders followed post-flood assessments on all 652 dams statewide classified as dangerous to lives and/or property if they fail. The first deadline — to lower or drain the lakes under an engineer’s supervision — passed last week.

For owners of 31 dams breached during the storms, that directive was laughable. Beyond puddles, there’s no water to lower.

Erich Miarka, the Gills Creek Watershed Association coordinator, said homeowner groups want to comply with the agency, but the orders caused confusion.

“Some of the lakes can’t be drained as rapidly as DHEC might want” without causing more problems, he said. “Everyone’s in chaos mode.”

He has been told that rebuilding an earthen dam could cost between $300,000 and $1 million. Simply putting in a new outlet for controlling water levels could cost $20,000, he said.

Cary Lake’s dam, rebuilt in 1988, failed despite receiving a satisfactory review from the environmental agency last year and the lake being lowered several feet before the storm. When the dam washed away, so did the road on top, cutting off access to Alicia de Myhrer’s home and 15 others. The state Department of Transportation won’t do any work until the dam’s rebuilt.

“That was the only way to get in and out, so now we’re stuck,” de Myhrer said.

For now, neighbors are allowing a one-vehicle-wide path through their property. What the lake’s 50 homeowners will do next is yet to be determined.

Downstream, Forest Lake’s concrete-reinforced dam never ruptured, though a torrent of water — and at least one boat — gushed over the top. Homeowners opened the floodgate soon after the storm to assess damage. Still, draining the lake by Oct. 20 was impossible, said Edwin Cooper, president of the homeowners’ group.

“We were already lowering ours just as fast as we could,” he said.

He is among homeowners who hope help will come from state or federal allocations, akin to Congress’ Hurricane Sandy relief in 2013. But four of South Carolina’s congressmen and both U.S. senators voted against that package, so it’s unclear whether something like that would be approved.

The state House budget-writing committee meets Nov. 5 to start discussing potential recovery costs.

Experts say it’s possible but improbable that dam owners have private insurance to cover such repairs. South Carolina Insurance News Service director Russ Dubisky said such coverage would have to be a specialized, and likely expensive, addition. Many homeowner groups have insurance that covers liabilities such as drownings or playground injuries, not dam repairs.

South Carolina’s dam safety program, responsible for about 2,400 dams statewide, is among the nation’s lowest funded, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. DHEC’s staff of seven is actually an improvement from a decade ago, when fewer than two worked full-time, according to the agency.

The agency “has done the best it can do with the resources it’s had and the priorities set for those resources,” said Heigel, confirmed for the job in June. The way forward, she said, “is not to engage in a game of blame, but to accept what we’ve learned from this flood event and work to make the program stronger.”