Shortage of dam inspectors not new

Posted Aug. 24, 2011, at 5 a.m.

Over the years, many warnings have been issued about the problems with the state’s dam safety program.

Nine years ago, the state’s chief dam inspector, Tony Fletcher, wrote in a report to the national Dam Safety Program:

“The Maine Dam Safety Program is critically short of resources, and the task of hydrological validation has become more and more pressing, especially in light of recent dam failures in the state.”

Since the mid-1990s, the state has had only one state dam inspector — Fletcher — to inspect the nearly 100 high- and significant-hazard dams and about another 700 low-hazard dams. A second inspector-in-training has been on the job since last year.

Five years ago, the problem came up again, when a task force of lawmakers and public officials studied the state’s Homeland Security needs.

Their study noted that during the heavy rains in the spring of 2006, parts of Lebanon in southern Maine were evacuated due to the danger of a nearby dam bursting.

Among their findings: “ … dams in Maine need to be inspected more often and the lag in timely inspections is due to lack of staffing resources.”

The task force proposed that the Legislature provide more money for the dam inspection program by establishing a fee on dam owners. That proposal was included in an emergency bill in 2007 to implement the Homeland Security Task Force’s recommendations.

But state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who was co-chairman of the task force and supported the proposal, said the Legislature wouldn’t do it.

“It died for lack of funding — education was more important, other things were more important,” he said.

In fact, the dam fee merited little discussion in public hearings and testimony, while a proposal to establish emergency shelters that could house pets got far more attention from state officials and the public.

In 2008, the Association of Dam Safety Officials issued a report card on dam safety across the nation. Overall grade D. Maine’s grade: D+.

‘Maine current staffing levels … are inadequate,” the report stated. “Considering the age of the state’s existing dams, the demands for comprehensive and intensive safety inspections is on the rise.”

Even with the addition of a second inspector, the report stated, Maine “will still not be able to provide the necessary level of inspection …”

And in 2009, a Federal Emergency Management Agency report on dam safety found that nationally while the majority of high hazard dams “meet safety standards, their potential to cause loss of life demands stringent oversight, an often overwhelming challenge for state dam safety programs.”

It cited only three states as examples of deficient dam safety program staffing: New York, Texas and Maine.

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