FERC

Greenwood County Council chairman Steve Brown, left, and Mayor Brandon Smith attended Wednesday's state of the City and County luncheon at Harris Baptist Church. 

For almost 13 years, Greenwood County has had $21 million in a bank account that officials desperately want to use but can’t.

“This is difficult for me to talk about, because I can get very bitter about what has happened,” County Council chairman Steve Brown said Wednesday.

The funds have been growing since voters in 2007 approved a one-cent sales tax to pay for a variety of capital improvement projects: Chief among them is building a federally mandated spillway on Lake Greenwood that could intentionally be breached should a catastrophic flood occur.

But no dirt can be turned without approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, which must approve final design of the flood relief structure and has thrown up so many hurdles in achieving that goal that Brown couldn’t hold back his disgust in talking about the issue during a State of the City/County luncheon at Harris Baptist Church.

“It seems like they don’t report to anyone. They do exactly what they want to do, when they want to do, how they want to do it and they’re some of the most arrogant bureaucrats that I have ever dealt with in 40-something years I’ve been in government,” Brown said. “We have a design on the table that’s being used in other locales throughout this nation that works every day, that hasn’t failed, that will work in Greenwood, we just want somebody to say ‘OK, go ahead and move on it.’”

In early December, County Manager Toby Chappell and Engineer Rob Russian spent two days huddling with a Board of Consultants and FERC representatives to go over specs for a project that was nearly ready to launch, until federal regulators put the brakes on at the last minute.

In January 2017, the County Council learned FERC would not approve plans to build the contraption — known as a fuse plug — until local leaders either took part in the agency’s Risk Informed Decision Making process or convened another consultants’ board to evaluate the proposal for a second time since March 2012.

Russian said in January a preferred design came out of those talks — but several more rounds of negotiations will be needed until work can finally begin.

David Capka, director of FERC’s dam safety and inspections division, told the county on Jan. 9, 2018, that it would need to seat the board of consultants for a second time since 2012. That process initially took more than a year and cost $150,000. Last August, County Council approved a $329,100 transfer from the 2007 Capital Projects Sales Tax to fund a “hydro project” account to cover costs of the three-person Board of Consultants and pay Kleinschmidt Associates for engineering and support services.

“It’s just bureaucracy at a level that’s almost incomprehensible,” Chappell said Wednesday to a crowd of 200 during the annual State of the City/County luncheon. “We’re not in a situation where we can’t do this or won’t do this because we don’t have the money. We’re in the exact opposite situation. We’re saying, ‘We have $21 million. For the love of God, tell us what we have to do to fix this, and we’ll do it.”

FERC mandated the spillway because diverting waters through the structure would not only protect the lake’s earthen dam but a 15-megawatt hydroelectric facility less than a mile away.

The board will meet five more times through design and post-construction.

Capka pointed to a February 2017 failure of the Oroville Dam spillway in Oroville, California as a basis for FERC’s request. That incident led to the evacuation of 180,000 people living downstream of the Feather River and the relocation of a fish hatchery. Heavy rains increased lake levels until it overflowed, eroding the spillway and threatening its collapse.

“The Oroville Dam incident has highlighted the importance of understanding the proper characterization of spillway type, the frequency and consequences of auxiliary spillway activation and proper characterization of foundation conditions,” Capka wrote. “Auxiliary spillway activation at Buzzard’s Roost would result in excessive erosion in the exit channel, washout of the downstream embankment, potential blockage of the tailrace and environmental impacts from the sediment release.”

In January 2017, Chappell said the use of such a spillway is extremely unlikely, though required by FERC.

“We’re not talking about a hurricane or the level of flooding we had back last October (of 2015). We’re talking literally two hurricanes on top of each other on top of the lake,” Chappell said then. “In all probability, we will never use this.”

FERC classified the possibility as a 10,000-year storm, meaning such an event would likely occur once every 10,000 years.

In January 2017, Chappell said use of such a spillway is extremely unlikely, but officials understand the need for it should a disaster strike.

Contact staff writer Adam Benson at 864-943-5650 or on Twitter @ABensonIJ.