Save the Bay: ‘Dangerous Dams’ pose risk to Narragansett Bay

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(WPRI) — Legislation is making its way through Congress that could bring millions of dollars to Rhode Island to help pay for repairs on dozens of dams that pose a risk of failing. And for Save the Bay, it can’t come soon enough.

Target 12 revealed last month that 41 of the state’s 177 high and significant hazard dams were deemed unsafe last year and, according to the Department of Environmental Management, only seven of those were fixed.

By definition, if any of those dams failed, there would be “probable loss of human life” or “major economic loss.”

After the initial story aired on Eyewitness News, the executive director of Save the Bay contacted Target 12 and alerted us about another potential issue facing Rhode Islanders if a dam fails.

“Behind the dams, in many situations in Rhode Island, the sediment that’s locked up behind the dam is contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic chemicals. And if a dam ruptures those sediments wash down the river or stream and ultimately end up in the bay,” said Jonathan Stone of Save the Bay.

Stone said one possible solution would be to remove the dams rather than repair them.

“It’s counter-intuitive, but you reduce the risk of flooding,” Stone said. “You don’t have the potential for a breach. You eliminate the cost of maintaining an old, aging structure and you improve water quality.”

Fixing the dams would be expensive and Sen. Jack Reed said he’s sponsored legislation which the Senate has already approved. It would provide hundreds of millions of dollars to rehabilitate high hazard dams nationwide, including Rhode Island.

“Rhode Island would stand to receive about $700,000 the first year and then over 10 years, $5 million. And, we certainly need the money because there are dams now that are getting close to being threatening to the populations around them,” Reed said.

Reed said he’s confident the bill would pass in the House as well, since it has bi-partisan support.

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