Dam concerns in Rhode Island
by Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s latest release of its annual Dam Safety Report gave us an in-depth look at how the DEM’s dam safety program is functioning. The information is alarming.
Dams are classified by the consequences of failure or improper operation; for example, “high hazard” dams that fail are likely to result in loss of human life; “significant hazard” dams that fail may cause major economic loss, damage to transportation infrastructure and other public facilities, and can cause impacts that threaten the public’s health, safety or welfare. The report documents large numbers of high hazard and significant hazard dams in very poor condition and at risk of failing. It is also replete with examples of gaps in information and a lack of action by the DEM in enforcing dam safety regulations.
Some disturbing facts in the report:
- At the end of 2018, only three of the 60 dams the DEM addressed during the year were compliant with state regulations.
- The DEM has not inspected every dam in the state as required by law as often as necessary so that the Director is informed of the conditions of the dam. The DEM attempted to soften the law by promulgating regulations that only required 48 dam inspections per year. The DEM is unable to meet its own limited obligation.
- High hazard dams are required by law to have an emergency action plan. The DEM acknowledges that responding to an emergency at a dam without an EAP increases the risk to life and property. Yet, eight years after this requirement was established by the Rhode Island General Assembly, only 58% of 96 high hazard dams have EAPs.
- Across the state the DEM and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation own 18 high and significant hazard dams. Repairs have been completed at just three (17%) of the 18, and the most recent repair was made in 2015.
- The Stillwater dam, a high hazard dam in Tiverton owned by the DEM, was inspected in 2014. It appears that no action has been taken since.
- In 2010, the DEM inspected the Creamer (high hazard) dam in Tiverton. The second inspection and Notice of Violation was not issued until 2017, seven years later.
- For many of the dams reviewed in the report, status reports end with phrases such as “the process of addressing the unsafe conditions began,” or “the Town is working towards resolving the unsafe conditions,” or a meeting was held “to discuss resolution of the matter.” It would appear that, in many of these cases, little or no action has been taken to correct the unsafe condition of these dams or properly assess their condition.
- The DEM has not identified the owners of about 50 high hazard and significant hazard dams, which means no action has been taken by the owners to maintain or remove the dams.
The report calls out the risks to public health and welfare from failure or improper operation of these dams, and yet, the DEM claims that the threat of failure is not imminent. The DEM also claims “[t]here isn’t a strong enforcement authority to compel somebody to do these things,” apparently referring to obtaining compliance. This claim is untrue with respect to authority to compel dam repairs. State law provides robust statutory authority to the DEM to ensure that alterations to unsafe dams are made. DEM is required to issue orders or notices, allowed to record notices in the land evidence records. If the dam owner does not comply with the written notice with reasonable expedition, the DEM is required to file a complaint with the Rhode Island Attorney General, who shall present the complaint in court. If the owner does not appear, the court may enforce the order. The report does not note any dams where complaints were filed with the Attorney General despite the fact that there were approximately 15 cases where Notices of Violation were issued to owners. No hearings were requested. Issues were not resolved. Further, as reported in the October 18, 2019 article in the Providence Journal, in 2005, Gov. Carcieri, ordered the DEM to take action on six high-risk dams and within weeks, dam owners announced repair plans or were brought to court.
The shortcomings of the DEM’s Dam Safety Program come as no surprise given that just two full-time staff are assigned to the program. The DEM needs additional inspectors and attorneys to compel action by dam owners to make repairs or remove dams. The report warns the Governor, the General Assembly, and the public that, were a storm to develop quickly, the DEM’s ability to respond may be severely compromised.
That is why Save The Bay is calling for action by Gov. Raimondo and the General Assembly:
- Provide the DEM with the staff and resources needed to inspect dams and take immediate action to remove or repair high and significant hazard dams.
- Give Rhode Island voters the opportunity to vote for an environmental bond that includes $15 million for removal of dams that serve no useful purpose. Removing dams will restore the natural flow of rivers, allow fish to swim upstream to spawn, and protect public health and safety from dams that breach and release torrents of flood water into communities downstream.
Save The Bay will campaign for these actions in the upcoming session of the General Assembly.
Stay tuned for more information and get ready to speak up!