Monday, March 10, 2008


We deserve the rest of the story on Hawaii's dams

by Larry Geller

Today's story in the Honolulu Advertiser, Kaloko breach brought action, omits some critical facts that readers would need to put what was written in context.

"Since Kaloko, all of us in the business of providing for public safety are certainly more acutely aware," said Maj. Gen. Robert Lee, the state's adjutant general and head of Hawai'i's Civil Defense program.

Since the Kaloko tragedy, the state government has spent more than $7 million inspecting and reinspecting its 136 largest dams for signs of similar trouble.

Sounds good, but it took the deaths of seven people to get the state to be "more acutely aware." The lesson learned was very costly, but it's omitted in the story.

Dam inspections had been neglected at least for 11 years. According to a report on the Kaloko dam failure, despite clear law and knowledge that inspections were required, this dam was never inspected:

The State of Hawai‘i failed to conduct required dam safety inspections of Ka Loko Dam. The State is required by its own statutes to inspect all dams at least every five years. Ka Loko Dam was never inspected. [Report of the Independent Civil Investigation of the March 14, 2006, Breach of Ka Loko Dam]

The state knew that dam inspections were being neglected. Here's an alarming story from the October 23, 2005 issue of the Advertiser, 22 structures in dire need of repairs. Note that this was before the March 14, 2006 disaster. Yet there was no "catch up" on inspections.

So before readers get that warm fuzzy feeling about the current state of inspections, they need to know that, like traffic lights installed only after several pedestrians are killed, the inspection program is in place because a deadly disaster resulted in part from the state's inaction.

The state put money and personnel into the Dam Safety Program that had been understaffed and hadn't inspected a dam in more than a year when the Kaloko Dam broke.

You might think that "hadn't inspected a dam in more than a year" was the problem. No, that sentence should be entered into the newspaper understatement of the year contest, if there is one. It's true, but why not say that the dam had never been inspected, then it broke?

The writer goes on to omit:

The odd thing about Kaloko that became apparent soon after its dam broke was that it didn't appear to have a spillway — the safety overflow system that takes away excess water in case of overfilling, and keeps the dam from breaking.

"Odd thing?" It's been well documented since the disaster that the spillway was likely filled in, and how this happened is the subject of legal action involving the owner of the property, James Pflueger. According to the report,

One member of the community sent Mr. Pflueger a facsimile in June 1998 expressing his concern:

It looks to me as if the Kaloko spillway is covered with 8 to 10 feet of new fill.
The reservoir is about 1 to 2 feet above the old fill level. It would probably take at
least several months for Kaloko to fill to the new level. Then I think water will
flow over a broad area in the middle of your earth dam . . . just an eye ball guess.
I suggest you consider digging back down to the old concrete spillway, setting a
small culvert on the spillway and then backfilling it to your current level. You
would probably also need to cut a new overflow ditch to the valley below your
dam. Your building sites are beautiful. Thanks for letting [my wife] and me hike
up there.

Mr. Pflueger did not respond to the facsimile.

This question also raised issues of the County's responsibility. Again, snipping from the report:

The Role and Possible Culpability of the County of Kaua‘i

The 1997 Notice of Violation at Ka Loko Reservoir was not enforced. The County sent a notice to stop all work at Ka Loko Dam when it found unlawful grading occurring. This was before the spillway had been filled in. Had this notice to stop work been enforced, the spillway might never have been filled in. But the engineer involved was called into the office of the Mayor, questioned, and told to “stop all actions involving Mr. Pflueger.” This should not have happened. No further enforcement action was taken for the next five years.

This cannot be dismissed as an "odd thing." It may turn out to be a crime.

This assurance in today's article may give false comfort, it sounds so warm and fuzzy:

But the larger dams, with thousands of people in potential harm's way, have traditionally gotten a good look by civil defense folks.

Don't get too comfortable, though, if you live below any of these larger dams. We are located below the Nuuanu Dam. From that 2005 article:

The Army Corps of Engineers, in the Nu'uanu Dam's first formal inspection report in 1978, directed the owners to remove the vegetation.

"Until the downstream area is clear ... the seepage or leakage deficiency will remain a real safety concern," civil engineer Robert J. Yunker wrote in April of that year.

But the dam was even more overgrown when Nicholson inspected it in 1993. In 1999, another inspector estimated it would cost about $400,000 to clear the crest and upstream and downstream slopes.

So from 1978 to 1999, 21 years, the vegetation problem grew worse, not better. I wonder if the dam is still leaking now, and if the vegetation issue has been adequately addressed.

From the story, it sounds like a lot of money, attention and work are being put into dam inspection and maintenance at present. But I don't know if the writer has done enough research to give us that assurance. The significant omissions from her story make me want a second opinion.

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