April 22, 2018
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Inspecting dams as required by law is nearly impossible, Maine official says

John Christie | Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting
John Christie | Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting
Downtown Camden lies downstream of two high hazard dams on the Megunticook River.
By John Christie and Naomi Schalit, Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

AUGUSTA, Maine — The head of the state agency responsible for the safety of about 100 potentially hazardous dams admitted to a legislative committee Monday that the dams are not being inspected when the law says they should be. But he also said he was confident in the assurance he got from the chief dam inspector that none of the dams pose a danger.

Robert McAleer, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency, told the committee that completing safety inspections of the dams “at the rate specified in the law is virtually impossible.”

He was responding to an investigative news story by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting in August that revealed the state had records of on-time inspections of only 10 percent of the 93 dams in the state classified as high or significant hazard.

High hazard dams that fail could take lives; significant hazard dams that fail could destroy property. State law requires them to be inspected by a MEMA civil engineer every two or four years respectively.

The story, he said, “might leave the reader somewhat concerned, but that is not the case,” he said, because the state dam inspector keeps in touch with dam owners and visits the dams on a regular basis.

But the inspector doesn’t do the legally required engineering inspections when he makes those visits. Actual inspections, McAleer said, “would arguably be better,” but with a staff of just one inspector until recently, when a second was added, his agency cannot do the full on-time inspections for all the dams.

McAleer told legislators he asked the inspector, Tony Fletcher, “point blank” about the safety of the dams “and he said he was quite confident he knew the conditions of the dams.”

McAleer appeared before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety at its request.

Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said, “Considering we have not adequately funded” the program and cannot live up to the dam safety law, the agency should consider suggesting changes that would allow for less than full inspections.

Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, the House chairman of the committee, asked McAleer to report back on the average time it takes to do the legal inspections.

He also asked McAleer if it was possible to visit, but not inspect, all of the high and significant hazard dams in a one-year period.

McAleer said, “It might get tough to do both,” but added, “we could take a stab at it.”

John Christie and Naomi Schalit are senior reporters at the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service based in Hallowell. Email: mainecenter@gmail.com.

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