Maine dam safety in question

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Dam safety is an important issue.  As Hurricane Irene demonstrated at the Marshfield Dam in Vermont last month, storms (and other conditions like earthquakes) place significant stresses on dams.  When the stresses become too severe, the risk of dam failure increases, placing people downstream at risk.  Some dams do not survive these conditions, such as Colcord Pond in Porter, Maine which blew out in March of 2010.

Water spills over the Doughty Dam in North Berwick, Maine.  This site provided power to numerous mills over the past centuries.

While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has jurisdiction over many aspects of most hydroelectric dams, states have asserted an interest in ensuring the safety of people and property near other dams and dammed rivers.  Maine enacted a dam safety law in 2001 creating a safety inspection and enforcement program through the state Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management.  Under this program, dams are inventoried and categorized by their hazard potential, ranging from low hazard potential (minimal losses, primarily to the owner's property) to high hazard potential (misoperation or failure could “probably cause loss of life").

Investigative journalists recently revealed that the state was 2 to 7 years overdue for inspections of half of its high hazard potential dams, Records are missing for the inspection of other dams, and only 3 of the state's 24 high hazard dams were documented as being inspected on time.  The journalists suggested that the state dam inspection office was severely understaffed for the workload required by the dam safety statute.

While the condition of many dams may not be known by the state, some dams' conditions are well-documented.  A number of older reports have showed that many dams were deteriorating and nearing the end of their design life.  Many of these dams do not have hydroelectric generation, but rather maintain a lake level.  Many formerly provided mechanical power to people working at the site, in the form of waterpower harnessed under the riparian owner's mill privilege, but fell into disuse with the spread of fossil fuels and utility-provided electricity.

The condition of each dam, and what if anything should be done about it, is a fact-specific question that must be answered on a case-by-case basis. Different philosophies exist on how to protect public safety while respecting dam owners' private property rights.  Nevertheless, the safety of Maine's state-jurisdictional dams is an important issue to consider.

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