38 Rhode Island dams pose safety risk, must be repaired

November 10, 2019 GMT

JOHNSTON, R.I. (AP) — For nearly a decade, Rhode Island officials have been after the town of Johnson to repair several potentially unsafe dams.

Considered high hazard and in poor condition, state officials argue the town has done little more than remove the vegetation from the trio of dams — one within sight of a major highway. The state claims that drains on several of the dams that help prevent overtopping during heavy storms need to be repaired. Spillways on at least two were found not to be operating properly and, in one case, clogged with debris.

The town has also failed to draw up emergency action plans for any of the dams — a critical document that would spell out how authorities would respond should a dam failure cause flooding that inundates homes and businesses.

“The owner is not cooperating and we don’t have the resources to push it,” said Paul Guglielmino, the principal civil engineer in the state’s Dam Safety Program. “It’s a concern like all the other unsafe dams. They are not unsafe because of an imminent danger, but the problems need to be corrected.”

Town officials dismiss these concerns, claiming two of the dams are not high hazard and problems on a third are on private property and not their responsibility.

The Rhode Island dams were part of a two-year investigation by The Associated Press that identified at least 1,680 dams nationwide that are rated as high hazard because of the potential for loss of life if they failed and considered to be in poor or unsatisfactory condition.

Emergency plans obtained by the AP indicate that thousands of people living and working downstream could be at risk if those dams were to catastrophically fail.

A review of dam inspection reports in Rhode Island found similar problems to those plaguing structures nationwide. Embankments were eroding. Water was found seeping through dams. Spillways were clogged with debris or unable to withstand significant floods. Animal burrows and overgrown vegetation plagued many structures— problems that could lead to a failure of earthen dams if left unchecked.

The AP’s investigation covers the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico but excludes five states that did not fully comply with records requests.

In Rhode Island, the AP found 38 dams in poor and unsatisfactory condition, more than half of which lacked updated inspection reports as of summer 2018. The slow pace of inspections was partly blamed on the state having only two employees in its dam safety program — among the lowest staffing levels in the country. Spending, too, was low compared to other states.

To address the inspection backlog, the state this year told water suppliers with dams to do their own inspections.

Twenty-seven of the 38 dams also lacked emergency action plans. The small number of plans was attributed to municipalities, not the state, being responsible for doing them. The state, however, does provide inundation maps for all its high and significant hazard dams.

Many of the dams were built decades ago to provide water and power to textile mills and manufacturing facilities. But today, most structures that hold back ponds and lakes are for recreation and drinking water.

The state’s 2018 dam report concluded there were 32 unsafe or potentially unsafe dams for which it couldn’t determine the owners. The state has hired a title attorney to track down dam owners but so far has only been able to identify a few. When owners can’t be found, there is little the state can do to require the needed repairs.

Another challenge is paying for repairs. More than a third of high hazard and significant hazard dams in the state are privately owned, which means they often lack the money to fix their structures and often can’t depend on state or federal agencies for help.

The Slack Reservoir Association, which owns the 300-foot Slack Reservoir dam rated in poor condition, relied on its more than 150 homeowners around the reservoir to raise a majority of the $500,000 to rebuild the earthen dam. If the dam failed, it would flood several commercial and residential properties downstream, overtop several other dams and inundate a busy highway.

“The state needs to recognize the value of these natural resources and provide support to people who want to maintain and upgrade these dams,” said Mark Barnes, who was the association president during the dam renovation. “Right now, there is no money available from the state.”

State officials acknowledged private owners lack funds but note that not everyone supports using taxpayer dollars to help them.

“That is the fundamental problem,” said David Chopy, chief of compliance and inspection for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. “Why should we put taxpayer dollars into private property? That doesn’t seem like what taxpayer dollars should be used for. The counter argument is that it’s necessary to protect life and property.”

But it’s not only private owners who are upset with the state. Johnson Mayor Joseph Polisena was livid when told the state has Simmons Upper and Lower Reservoir dams on its list of unsafe or potentially unsafe dams.

Located below a network of wind turbines, recycling facilities and a landfill, the dams are on reservoirs popular with fishermen. One is located behind a fence off Interstate 295 and the other in the nearby woods. Though some homes and businesses would be inundated if the dams failed, Polisena insisted neither was a risk to the public. If it was, he says they would have been repaired.

“Our engineer says they aren’t high hazard so obviously they don’t know what the frick they are talking about,” Polisena said of the state. “If it’s not high hazard, we ain’t fixing it ... Quite frankly, they need to look in-house and fix their own dams. But they don’t have the money.”