Dam Secrecy Endangers Lives, Property of US Public in Many States

What You Don't Know Might Kill You

Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens are at risk from potential dam disasters, yet state and federal agencies hold to a policy that amounts to "out of sight, out of mind."

The biggest danger, apparently, is that the public might find out about the dangers, and criticize insufficient dam safety measures, inconvenience private dam owners, depress real estate values, or demand public spending that is politically painful for those in office. Their chosen solution: whip up fear of terrorism, impose secrecy, and do very little.

If you live downstream of a dam whose failure might kill you or destroy your home, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (a lead agency on dam safety) will not let you know that fact. Even though the information is already in the public domain by other means, the Corps has blacked out such hazard ratings from its National Inventory of Dams. Many state agencies also withhold the information.

Here are some examples of how journalists have taken on this issue:

  • Reporter Mose Buchelle this month aired a three-part investigative series on dams in Texas (which has more than any other state) on NPR's StateImpact Texas. State dam inspectors in recent years have found some of Texas' dams in scary condition — but many of the private owners lack the money to make them safe. And many of Texas' high-hazard dams hadn't been inspected at all until a state auditor blew the whistle in 2008. But inspecting them has been an uphill fight, as the state legislature exempts more and more dams from inspection — pleasing the private dam owners. While FEMA advises people living downstream of high-hazard dams to be vigilant, following FEMA's self-preservation advice is hard in Texas. A 2005 Texas Attorney General's opinion says it's illegal for the state to tell people whether a dam is rated high-hazard. Terrorists, you know. That's the real danger.
  • When "biblical" rains deluged the Front Range of Colorado in September 2013, the citizens of Boulder wondered whether they might be swept to their deaths by a failure of the Barker Dam, about 15 miles upstream. Information about the condition of the dam or its operation status was unavailable to the fearful public during the peak flooding. Colorado does not publish dam inspection reports online.
  • Macon Telegraph reporter S. Heather Duncan investigated Georgia dams for a February 2013 feature package. The state's dam regulatory agency didn't really refuse her information. It was just that the understaffed and underfunded agency didn't know all that much about the high-hazard dams in the state, and did not inspect very many of them that often. Georgia is one of the few states that don't require owners of high-hazard dams to have emergency action plans.
  • Some 1.1 billion gallons of toxic and caustic coal-ash slurry inundated a town and river when an impoundment dike failed at the TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant in December 2008. EPA's Lisa Jackson swept into office vowing to fix it and prevent it from happening again. EPA inventoried some 44 other high-hazard coal-ash dams, but the Corps and Department of Homeland Security told EPA it could not disclose the information. EPA did it anyway. No terrorists attacked. The Corps did not call the FBI and EPA did not go to jail. But the utility industry sandbagged EPA at the White House, thus preventing EPA from regulating coal-ash wastes. In the end, the next coal-ash disaster is likely to be caused by floods, cost-cutting, and bad construction, not terrorism.
  • In 2007, the Corps decided without warning to draw down the level of Cumberland Lake in Kentucky, because it feared failure of the Wolf Creek Dam. It was well known that dam failure threatened lives and property all the way down the Cumberland River to Nashville, Tennessee. But the Corps was reluctant to release maps of the areas that would be inundated if the dam failed.
  • Lake Okeechobee in Florida is held back from populated areas by a dike. A hurricane-driven storm surge overwhelmed the dike in 1928 and caused flooding that killed some 1800-2500 people, many of them African-American migrant farm workers. The dike was built up and is now known as Herbert Hoover Dike. When Florida news media in 2007 FOIA'd the "inundation maps" showing who would be flooded if the dike failed, the Corps refused the request. Again, the excuse was terrorism. But real terrorists were nowhere to be seen. Apparently the Corps feared criticism for its poor maintenance of the dike.
  • When journalist Chris Landers did a 2005 story on hazardous dams in Maryland that ran in the Baltimore Sun, the Maryland Department of the Environment refused to name the 19 potentially hazardous dams in its own report. The reason: terrorists. (The high-hazard dams are, of course, identified in other public sources.) Of course the next big dam failure in Maryland (Lake Needwood in 2006) was caused not by terrorists but by heavy rains.


There are more examples. The failure of levees after Hurricane Katrina probably caused more than 1,000 deaths in New Orleans. The causes were many, complex, and ultimately political; but terrorism was not one of them. Government incompetence and public indifference, arguably, were.

One way to keep the terrorist bugaboo in perspective: look at the Johnstown Flood. The Johnstown Flood was a Pennsylvania disaster caused by the failure of a neglected dam in 1889. It killed an estimated 2,209 people and destroyed some 1,600 homes.  This compares to 2,753 people killed by terrorists at the World Trade Center in the 9/11 attack.

In other words, natural or man-made disasters pose dangers to our society comparable in magnitude to terrorist attacks. Whether or not secrecy is the magic bullet that will prevent terrorism, a lot of sad experience has demonstrated that public information — and the protective action it brings — is one of the best ways to prevent disasters.

Just one example: "Washing Away," a 2002 mega-feature in the New Orleans Times-Picayune by John McQuaid, Mark Schleifstein, and others, warned that if a category 5 hurricane hit the city dead-on, some 100,000 people could die. The impact of that story inspired serious disaster and evacuation planning in the region by the time Katrina hit in 2005 — and probably saved tens of thousands of lives.

When it comes to prevention of dam-failure disasters, there is a great deal more the U.S. could be doing. Scapegoating the Corps is easy, but not that helpful. The Corps actually plays a strong lead role in U.S. dam safety. There are between 84,000 and 150,000 dams in the U.S. and the Corps only owns 694 of them (most of which are ship-shape). Many other federal agencies own, fund, operate, and regulate dams. More importantly the greatest fraction of U.S. dams are privately owned (70%) and regulated by the states (80%).

Overall, the U.S. dam safety program is weak. Congressional interest in it has been fitful, and federal funding has been low. In the last decade, the authorized level of spending for the National Dam Safety Program has ranged between roughly $6.5 and $9.2 million. A good deal of that goes to grants to the state dam safety programs; spread among 50 states, it is not very much.

And the state dam safety programs are often worse funded and staffed, as states go through fiscal crises even more severe than the federal government's. Some state dam safety regulatory programs are strong (and committed to giving risk information to the public), such as Washington state's. But many are underfunded and politically pressured not to cause discomfort to private dam owners. The cases of Georgia and Texas, cited above, are hardly unique.

There is plenty of dam- and levee-related risk to worry about. The National Inventory of Dams currently lists some 14,726 of its 84,000 dams as high-hazard (likely to cause loss of life if the dam fails) and 12,406 of them as significant-hazard (likely to cause property loss if dam fails). These hazard ratings describe only the consequences of dam failure — not the condition of the dam itself or the likelihood that it may fail.

Trying to hide dam hazard ratings from the public makes no sense. One reason is that the hazards are often obvious to the casual observer (witness the Wolf Creek Dam, holding back the biggest reservoir in the East, upstream of a major city). Another is that they have already been disclosed many times — in previous versions of the National Inventory of Dams and through other channels like state dam programs. So withholding disclosure won't keep anybody uninformed. Another is that it is illegal under the Freedom of Information Act. No FOIA exemption based on public safety can justify withholding the information. On the contrary, public safety *requires* the disclosure of dam hazard ratings.

Another reason is that it seems inconsistent for the government to withhold information in the name of public safety — and then to ignore and flout public safety by doing so little to actually make dams safer and protect the public from their hazards. Evidence of this is the fact that years after safety officials began urging owners of high-hazard dams to prepare "emergency action plans," some 3,172 of them have still not done so — and another 2,700 are not even required to under state rules. An emergency action plan (EAP) outlines which public safety agencies will be notified of impending dam failure, how people downstream will be warned, who will be evacuated, how they will be evacuated, etc. Fear of terrorism has the kind of voltage needed for political self-protection — but fear of catastrophic dam failure seems like a dead battery when it comes to powering safety actions in some states.

Another kind of information that the Corps is denying to the public is the condition of dams as revealed by actual dam inspections. A good deal of such information is in the National Inventory of Dams — but not disclosed to the general public in the online database. According to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, the Corps began in 2009 to collect in the NID data about the condition ratings of high-hazard dams, and the NID had ratings for 76 percent of the state-regulated high-hazard dams in its 2013 update. The NID had it, but the public did not. Such information is submitted voluntarily to the NID by the states. Its withholding may be a sign of the Corps deferring politically to the states.

Journalists may still get this information in some cases by asking a particular state for it — possibly requesting it under state open-records law.













This article is part of the October 23, 2013 special issue of the WatchDog on the transparency of safety information related to dams, levees, impoundments, and related water-control structures.