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Despite Tragedies, Thousands of U.S. Dams Unsafe and Unregulated

July 23, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Four years after a federal study identified 2,884 unsafe dams in the United States, little is being done to prevent the type of tragedy that claimed about 200 lives in Italy last week, a dam safety expert says.

″You’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade dams,″ said Joe Ellam, director of Pennsylvania’s dam safety program and head of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

″Little is being done to correct these dams,″ according to Ellam, who says the effort is being hampered by a lack of federal money.

Ensuring the safety of U.S. dams is a patchwork process, with states responsible for the bulk of the facilities. There is no uniform safety law and little federal assistance, according to Ellam and officials in Washington.

Federal agencies like the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation look after the dams they build, but federal dams account for only about 5 percent of the approximately 67,000 dams - both earthen and masonry - across the country.

The rest are either state facilities or privately owned, and their inspections are left to the states - only 10 of which have safety programs considered effective by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

Ellam said that while ″things have improved″ in his business in the last decade, disasterous failures ″could happen here. They have occurred. They will continue to occur. Of man-made structures, dams pose the probability for greatest loss of life and economic damage.″

His state was the site of the worst earthen dam collapse in U.S. history - the 1889 disaster that claimed 2,200 lives in Johnstown when the South Fork dam gave way nine miles north of the city.

In the 1970s, a series of dam disasters caught Washington’s attention.

In February 1972, 125 people were killed in West Virginia in the failure of a mine-tailings dam similar to the one that gave way in Italy. Four months later, 240 people died as Rapid City, S.D., was inundated after the Canyon Lake dam, also earthen, broke.

Those disasters quickly resulted in a law establishing a federal program to make an inventory of U.S. dams - big and small - and to inspect those considered ″high hazard″ - meaning that lives and property would be lost in a failure.

This program still wasn’t off the ground in 1976, when the earthen Teton dam failed in Idaho, killing 11 people. It was a Bureau of Reclamation facility.

But the program still hadn’t begun in July 1977 when disaster again struck Johnstown, Pa., with the collapse of the Laurel Run dam, killing more than 40 people.

The Carter administration’s attention was captured in November 1977, when an earthen dam gave way in northeast Georgia, killing 39 people in a wall of water that engulfed Toccoa Falls Bible College.

As rescuers cleaned up the mess in the president’s home state, Jimmy Carter gave the order that started the long-delayed dam survey by the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation.

When it was completed in 1981, the agencies reported that 2,884 of the 8,639 ″high hazard″ dams inspected were unsafe. A high percentage of them were earthen dams, said Jack Thompson, assistant chief of the engineering division for the Corps of Engineers.

The worst 132 unsafe dams since have been repaired, but there have been no federal reinspections to determine whether problems at the other 2,752 dams have been corrected, Thompson said.

″Nothing’s been done since 1981 except at the state level,″ he said. ″We’ve tried to put the responsibility on the states.″

Ellam said that at the state level, ″the situation is a mixed bag right now.″

Twenty-six states have what his association considers effective dam safety laws on the books, but only 10 have effective programs to carry out their laws, according to Ellam.

At the other end of the spectrum, four states - Alabama, Delaware, Florida and Hawaii - have no laws at all, Ellam said. He added that Missouri - which led the nation with 451 ″unsafe″ dams in 1981 - passed a law, but exempted dams built before 1983.

Asked about the state of dam safety in the nation today, he said: ″Without a (new) inventory, it’s difficult to discuss where we’re at.″

Ellam said states and private dam owners are facing an expensive future.

When the 1977-81 survey was done, only 15 percent of the nation’s dams were 50 years old or older, but by 2000 ″more than 50 percent of U.S. dams will be 50 years old,″ he said.

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