Investigations

State inspectors have watched the Loch Mary Reservoir Dam in Western Kentucky deteriorate for at least a decade. But it wasn’t until this spring that the state wielded its enforcement power and required the city get to work, or risk penalties.

Now, the city of Earlington in Hopkins County has begun taking steps to fix the dam. A KyCIR investigation published in August revealed that the Loch Mary was among dozens of dams in Kentucky without disaster plans as recommended by the Federal Emergency Management Administration even though the dams were in bad condition and would threaten lives or property if they breached.

Last year, the state’s Division of Water issued a violation to Earlington. Two follow-up inspections showed their concerns weren’t addressed despite deadlines. The state then told city officials they must meet with dam safety staff to make plans to fix the dam.

Ultimately, if Earlington were to continue disregarding state concerns, the state would take the city to court.

But city officials met with the state this month.

Earlington Mayor Philip Hunt said the city has hired an engineer, and is still figuring out how to fix the dam, how much it will cost and how the city will pay for it. The city is also working on an emergency action plan, Hunt said.

Hunt became mayor last November, and has served as a council member in the past. Hunt told KyCIR he doesn’t know yet how much it will cost or when the work will be done.

“In a small city like Earlington we have an extremely small budget to work with,” Hunt said. “I know that they’ve done what they could in the past, as far as the budget would allow them.”

Enforcement data show the Division of Water rarely issues violations or threatens dam owners with court action. While there are about 80 high hazard-dams in poor or worse condition, and many of them struggle with recurring problems, inspectors have delivered just 56 violations in a 10-year span.

High hazard dams could kill people or damage infrastructure if they broke.

State inspectors say the Loch Mary could overtop during extremely heavy rainfall. Severe cracks and spalling scar the spillway. Animals have bored holes into the structure and unruly foliage further threatens to degrade the dam even more.

Carey Johnson, assistant director for the Kentucky Division of Water, acknowledged the Loch Mary dam’s problems may not have grown so out of control and so expensive to fix had action been taken sooner.

“Over time, issues tend to worsen,” Johnson said. “The sooner the issues on dams are identified and addressed, the better it is not only for the dam, but generally the more cost effective it is for the dam owner. Those costs can compound over time as these aspects of the dam deteriorate.”

Inspectors issue violations after documenting a pattern of non-compliance by the dam owners, Johnson said, and formal enforcement is treated as a last resort. He wasn’t certain why the state didn’t take formal action against Earlington faster, but said it was possible that the city was showing some effort to maintain the dam, which would have been enough to stave off a violation for a while.

At least 11 dams were rated poor during three consecutive inspections or more, but received no violations, data show.

Johnson said there’s a good reason for that: Inspectors would rather work with dam owners than levy fines the owner might not be able to afford. They generally won’t issue formal violations if dam owners show they are trying to address concerns, unless there is an immediate threat to human health or lives.

He said they also understand that the most common shortcoming is the most difficult to address: a dam that wouldn’t hold enough water during a catastrophic rainstorm.

Of the 80 high-hazard dams rated poor or unsatisfactory across the state, records show at least 47 of them received that ranking at least partially because they wouldn’t hold enough rain during a catastrophic storm. Fixing that issue often requires major renovation.

But climate change and aging structures make it more pressing to ensure a dam won’t breach under extreme rainfall.

“The risk of failure keeps going up,” said Colette Easter, a civil engineer in Louisville.

And the cost will go up too.

“If you don’t have the capital dollars today to meet the standards of today, where are you going to be in 10 years if the standard goes up?” Easter said.

But Easter, who assessed Kentucky’s dam safety program for an analysis by the American Society of Civil Engineers, said the state’s philosophy on postponing violations and enforcement is a good one. Dam owners’ money is better used saving up to fix the big problems they are encountering than to pay fines, she said.

In western Kentucky, a dam owned by the Marshall County Conservation District has not received violations even though it’s out of compliance with state requirements. Vicki Boatright, administrative secretary of the Marshall County Conservation District, says upgrades to comply with rules for catastrophic rainstorms will cost about $3.5 million.

The district didn’t have to worry about that particular criteria until about 15 years ago, when two mobile homes popped up downstream from the dam thus putting human lives at risk if the dam were to break.

Dam safety experts say this is a fairly common predicament for dam owners, as they have little to no control if someone builds downstream.

“Realtors will try to sell these properties as lakefront property, when that’s not at all the purpose of the low lying areas on the downstream side of the levee,” said Boatright. “If there were to be a catastrophic event that whole area would be covered in water. It’s not a good place to put in a house.”

Inspectors have rated the dam poor since at least 2014. It has overtopped in the past, and inspectors noted they’re not even sure if the valve to draw the water level down to prevent overtopping during rainstorms is working. It isn’t, according to Boatright.

But, state inspectors noted this year that has made substantial improvements on maintenance. They’ve fixed what they could afford, and are still trying to figure out the rest.

Johnson of the state Division of Water said more funding opportunities for dam owners will be available in 2021 through a federal pre-disaster program. His team is also studying whether they can use abandoned mine land funds for dam fixes. But his team does not proactively coach dam owners about grants or loans.

“That is actually a good idea,” Johnson said.

Boatright said the state has never talked to her district staff about funding mechanisms, and she doubts there is much help available. That $3.5 million number is daunting.

“That’s just totally not even feasible for our conservation district; it’s not even a reasonable thought,” Boatright said.

It’s too soon to know what the price tag might be at the Loch Mary dam, which has structural integrity issues and maintenance problems to correct.

Residents who live downstream worry about the dam failing.

“We could lose everything including our houses, our lives,” 70-year-old Annette Rudolph said last week. “You worry about your house, but you worry about your life more than anything. Because you might not make it out.”

When she learned the mayor has hired an engineer and started working toward fixing the dam, Rudolph said she’ll believe the city is going to fix the dam when she sees it.

She said she’s been told for years that something will be done: she’s personally asked every mayor the city’s had about the dam and gone to city council meetings to stay informed.

“I just stopped going,” she said. “Because you hear the same things, over and over and over again.”

Reach reporter Caitlin McGlade at (502) 814.6541 or cmcglade@kycir.org.