Dozens of dams in RI deemed unsafe

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Dozens of dams in Rhode Island are in rough shape. In fact, dozens of them are in high-risk areas, and failure could cause death and catastrophic damage, according to the R.I. Department of Environmental Management.

UPDATE: Save the Bay also concerned about dangerous dams

According to the DEM, there are 668 dams in Rhode Island. While they are often owned by the state or municipalities, dams can also be privately owned.

Target 12 found dozens of publicly and privately owned dams are in “unsafe condition,” according to DEM officials. Many others are not being inspected or repaired as often as the law requires.

One of those “unsafe” dams, according to DEM, is the Bowdish Lower Dam in Glocester. It’s classified as a “high hazard” dam. By definition, that means if it fails, the result would be a “probable loss of human life.”

Target 12 uncovered court documents that show the dam’s owner has ignored orders to repair it since 2012 and hasn’t had it inspected since 2009. DEM took the owner to Superior Court earlier this year over the violations, and a judge ordered the owner to fix all issues with the dam within six months.

Target 12 reached out to the owner of the Bowdish Lower Dam by phone several times and went to the address listed in those court documents. No one ever answered.

If you think the Bowdish Lower Dam is the only high hazard dam in bad shape in Rhode Island, think again.

Target 12’s findings show that out of the 668 dams in the state, 96 are classified as “high hazard,” where failure means people will likely die. Another 81 dams are classified as “significant hazard,” meaning failure would result in “major economic loss.”

The following map details the high and significant hazard dams in the state. Those in red have been deemed unsafe. The story continues below.

According to DEM, in 2015 there were 41 high and significant hazard dams in “unsafe” condition. Only seven of those dams were fixed last year.

“It’s very concerning,” says David Chopy, the chief of DEM’s Office of Compliance and Inspection.

“The dams in the state are mostly over 100 years old,” Chopy said. “The storms that we’re getting are becoming more intense. In August 2014, there was a storm in Islip, New York, where 13 inches of rain fell in 24 hours, 5 inches in an hour. Our dams aren’t designed to handle that kind of water.”

When asked what it would take to get Rhode Island’s dams up to safe standards, Chopy painted a long-term picture.

“If we had the pot of money we needed right now, it probably would take about 10 years or so to get the design work done and have them built so that they could withstand these kinds of storms,” he said.

Here’s how the state’s dam inspection system works.

Visual inspections of high hazard dams are required every two years, and significant hazard dams every five years. The inspections can be performed by DEM, or by an engineer hired by the dam owner. Dam owners are responsible for the cost of any needed repairs.

On average there should be about 64 inspections of high and significant hazard dams every year. But according to DEM, only 12 were inspected last year.

Asked about the low number, Chopy said: “It’s partly because when we issue a notice to people, we know that the dam is unsafe. And we know that they need to hire an engineer to fix it, and it takes multiple years to get the dam fixed. So we’re not going to put that [dam] on another inspection cycle because we know that the engineer is working on it.”

When asked what his message is to people living near one of the state’s 177 high and significant hazard dams, Chopy’s reply was simple.

“Be vigilant,” he said. “Especially around times when it’s particularly rainy. If they know there are going to be particularly big storms coming, they should be talking to their local officials about what plans they have in place if there was an emergency, how would I be notified, how would that be handled.”

By law, cities and towns have to know the answers to those questions. State law says: “By July 1, 2008, an emergency action plan shall be prepared for each significant or high hazard dam by the city or town wherein the dam lies.”

But Target 12 has discovered that only 47 emergency action plans exist for those 177 high and significant hazard dams. And only 24 of those plans have actually been approved by DEM.

“[Cities and towns] are in the process of completing [plans] for all of the dams,” Chopy said. “Some of the dams don’t have them yet. If I was someone who lived downstream of these, those are the questions I would be asking.”

And the threat is real. During the historic floods of 2010, five of Rhode Island’s dams washed out. Two of them were significant hazard dams.

“We’ve done a lot to get the dams safer than they have been,” Chopy said. “We’re doing inspections that we weren’t doing before. We’re repairing dams that we weren’t repairing before. There’s a lot of effort being put into it, but we had a long way to go because we were in such bad shape to begin with. It’s going to take us a lot more time and money to get there.”